Federal Agency Takes Database of Medical Malpractice Data Offline

On behalf of Brown & Crouppen, P.C. posted in Medical Malpractice on Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An online database that allowed the public to examine incidents of medical malpractice by physicians has been partially taken down by an office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The decision has sparked protest from patient rights advocates and health journalists, who say the move blocks the public’s right to know about such incidents of poor medical care.

The database, called the National Practitioner Data Bank, is typically used by state medical boards, malpractice insurance companies and employers to conduct background checks on doctors before granting them licenses or staff privileges. Prior to Sep. 1, the database’s administrator, the Health Resources and Services Administration, made some of the data was made available to the general public. Cases of alleged medical malpractice were posted, with the doctor’s name removed. Instead of identifying the physicians involved, the database assigned them a number and referred to their age within a range, for example 50 to 59.

But when the agency found out that a reporter from the Kansas City Star was using the database as a tool to learn more about physicians in Missouri who were not disciplined by the state board for malpractice incidents, they pulled the public-use files off the Internet. As journalists have routinely done, the Star reporter used the files in conjunction with court records to deduce the identity of physicians and gather additional information about them. A spokesman for the HRSA said the agency would undertake a “thorough analysis” of how to protect physician confidentiality. The process will take at least six months.

Both Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, and the Association of Health Care Journalists oppose HHS’ decision. In a letter dated Sep. 13, Public Citizen said the publically-available data was important for helping inform the debate around medical malpractice issues, among others.

Source: The Kansas City Star, “Doctor malpractice data is removed from public access by HHS,” Alan Bavley, Sep. 14, 2011

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