Gov’t database of bad doctors blocks public from seeing names

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In the mid-1980s, incompetent and negligent doctors were moving freely between states, with state licensing boards and hospitals largely oblivious to lawsuits or disciplinary actions in other locations that might have flagged bad providers.

In response, Congress passed the Health Care Quality Improvement Act of 1986, which created the National Practitioner Data Bank, a repository of information that includes malpractice payments, license revocations and loss of clinical privileges for physicians, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists and other professionals . “The NPDB is primarily an alert or flagging system intended to facilitate a comprehensive review of health care practitioners’ professional credentials,” says the Department of Health and Human Services, which maintains it.

Members of the public can access statistical portions of the NPDB. Thanks to lobbying by the American Medical Association, however, the law blocks public users from pulling up histories of individual doctors or other health care professionals. Only authorized users such as hospital administrators can do that. A physician can see only his or her own record.

Sidney Wolfe, director of the Public Citizen Health Research Group, said “Congress rolled over” when it agreed to restrict public access to the HHS database. “One of the most important benefits of the databank has gone wasted,” Wolfe said. “Unfortunately, there’s been no effort that’s come close to succeeding in opening this up.”

In an email, AMA President J. James Rohack said the organization opposes making providers’ names public because the database “is riddled with duplicate entries [and] inaccurate data.” Information about physicians’ credentials and disciplinary histories is available through “state-based systems already in place,” Rohack wrote. “These state-based systems are linked through the Federation of State Medical Boards website, so information on physicians can be easily located even if the physician has moved from another state.”

The state medical board federation’s public site has physician-specific data on disciplinary actions and licensure history, among other things. But it lacks some information contained in the NPDB — e.g., malpractice payments — and it charges $9.95 per name search. A sample provider profile is shown here.

A fact sheet listing what’s available within the NPDB is here.

Data Mine thanks Barbara Feder Ostrov, deputy editor of ReportingonHealth.org, the website of the USC/Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, for calling our attention to the NPDB controversy. ReportingonHealth.org’s William Heisel did two blog posts about the database last year.

UPDATE — March 24, 2010: In an earlier version of this story, a statement by AMA President J. James Rohack was incorrectly attributed to AMA spokeswoman Katherine Hatwell.

ABOUT THE DATA:

What: National Practitioner Data Bank

Where: Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.

Availability: Portions of database open to the public, but not providers’ names

Format: ASCII text or SPSS portable data file (Public Use Data File only)

Usability: Statistical data available to public researchers

Send your tips on government data sets that you think should be made more accessible or user-friendly to datamine@publicintegrity.org. You can also message us on Twitter or discuss the project on our Facebook page. We're eager to hear what you turn up — full credit and links will be provided to individuals whose suggestions we use in our series.

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