In September, the Department of Health and Human Services removed the Public Use Data File of the online National Practitioners Data Bank after receiving a complaint from a doctor whose history of malpractice claims was published in a newspaper article. Public access was recently restored, but with a whole host of limitations that our cohorts at Consumers Union think need to be removed.
Among those limits, HHS now requires researchers to agree not to use information from the NPDB to identify doctors who have been subject to disciplinary actions or malpractice claims.
The NPDB does not identify specific physicians, but the information available in the database — when combined with other publicly available data — could be used to figure out the name of a particular doctor. This is what happened in the case that brought about the complaint that temporarily shut off public access to the NPDB.
However, hospitals, insurers, state licensing boards and other health care entities are given access to the full information (including doctors’ names) so they can check it when doctors apply for licenses and privileges to practice.
“When information held by the government is declared ‘public’ there should be no strings attached to the use of that data,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project (www.SafePatientProject.org). “The elephant in the room during this whole controversy is that most of this information is public in other places and should be public at the NPDB. It’s time to provide the public full access to this critical information, including the names of doctors who have been disciplined by state licensing boards or sued for failing to provide safe care.”
A recent Consumer Reports poll found that nearly 9 out of 10 respondents support public access to the information the federal government collects on doctors.
“The public should have the same access to this information as hospitals and state licensing boards,” said McGiffert. “Because doctors often work in multiple states, losing a license in one state might not translate to losing a license in another. One of the original purposes of the doctor database was to keep track of doctors with licenses in multiple states. Currently, except for checking every states’ medical board website, the public has no central source to find out this critical patient safety information.”