As Americans seek lower health care costs, patients have often been encouraged to use online tools to find providers in their network from whom they can obtain lower-priced care. But a new study suggests that the entire system of health care directories may be flawed. According to the Oregon Health & Science University, research shows as many as 58% of all listed providers in the Oregon Medicaid system in 2018 were so-called “phantom providers” who aren’t available to see patients. 

The numbers were especially stark for mental health specialists; while around 54% of all primary care providers were “phantoms”, more than two-thirds of mental health prescribers fell into that same category.

According to Jane M. Zhu, the lead author of the new study, “Phantom Networks: Discrepancies Between Reported and Realized Mental Health Care Access in Oregon Medicaid,” the findings are worrisome, especially if they reflect other provider systems as well. “If the majority of providers are not actually accessible, it leads to delays and interruptions in care and treatment that people need,” she said.

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