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.Continued on the next page