Posted On: September 24, 2011 by Patrick A. Malone

Database of Dangerous Doctors Gets Yanked from Public Eye

The Obama administration's decision to remove from the Web a database of physician discipline and malpractice activity shows how far this country is from giving the public ready access to information on who the most dangerous doctors are.

The National Practitioner Data Bank was set up in 1986 to provide a clearing house for hospitals and state licensing agencies to easily check out a doctor's prior history of malpractice claims and licensing discipline. From the start, the database has shielded from the public the names of the doctors in its data set. Only hospitals and licensing agencies could get the real goods. The idea was that by keeping the database confidential, health care providers would be encouraged to send in reports that would strengthen the quality of the information.

Each year, a public report of filings to the data bank is published, with all identifying information scrubbed out. The idea is to provide statistical trends.

But now there have been a few instances of enterprising journalists who have figured out from clues in the annual reports exactly which practitioners are among the heaviest sued or disciplined. And the data bank people don't like that. Hence the new move to take the whole thing down from any public access, even anonymized.

Three journalism organizations objected when the National Practitioner Data Bank was yanked by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Sept. 1 from digital public access after neurosurgeon Robert Tenny, whose checkered professional history we profiled recently, complained.

As the New York Times reported, the data bank, created in 1986, is reviewed by state medical boards, insurers and hospitals, but recently, the public also could monitor claims against doctors, and their outcomes. As The Times said, the data bank “has provided valuable information for many years to researchers and reporters investigating oversight of doctors, trends in disciplinary actions and malpractice awards.”

In protesting the removal, ProPublica, Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists noted that the Kansas City Star reporter who wrote the story about Tenny’s questionable competence received a letter from HHS warning him of liability for violating federal confidentiality laws. The document reads an awful lot like the kind of threat that chills free speech and the public’s right to know.

“Reporters across the country have used the public use file to write stories that have exposed serious lapses in the oversight of doctors that have put patients at risk,” Charles Ornstein told The Times. He’s president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and a reporter for the investigative outfit ProPublica. “Their stories have led to new legislation, additional levels of transparency in various states, and kept medical boards focused on issues of patient safety.”

A spokesman said the feds had been contacted by the doctor, who was concerned that The Star’s reporter had obtained information beyond that contained within the database’s public use file. He hadn’t.

Still, HHS is reviewing the public use file and might change it to further assure confidentiality before posting it back on the Web. The spokesman said he hoped it would be public again within six months.

Ornstein noted that The Star’s reporter, like many others across the country, had extensively researched courts, state agencies and hospital actions, “allowing them to connect the dots” to individual doctors. The federal database did not reveal identities.

As The Times’ pointed out, other recent notable articles based partly on the database have appeared in The Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which published a series last year titled, “Who Protects the Patients?”

The answer to that question, in light of the HHS withdrawal of valuable information from public scrutiny, would have to be “not the government.”

If you're interested in more on this controversy, including the name and address of the government official responsible for the decision, check out this blog piece on the Kansas City Star affair.

Article first published as Database of Dangerous Doctors Gets Yanked from Public Eye on Technorati.

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