Major Concerns about Removal of Public Medical Malpractice Database

In response to the Obama administration removing from the Internet a public database containing records of physician discipline and payments for medical malpracticeseveral journalism groups have banded together, sending a letter to the administration in protest.

“The National Practitioner Data Bank” was created in 1986, and is primarily used by state licensing agencies and hospitals to check out a doctor’s history of malpractice payments. Every year, a public report of the malpractice filings is put online in a data bank, with identifying information such as the doctor’s name and address, removed.

While the online data bank is used by medical boards, insurers, and hospitals, the public report of the data bank has been used for years by researchers and reporters investigating doctor errors, discipline trends, and malpractice awards. Even without specific doctors’ names, the information provided is useful to the public, including such information as hospital sanctions, malpractice settlements, and doctor’s disciplinary actions by the state.

The information contained in the database has been used for important research. Reporters have used information gleaned from the public use file to expose doctors who have put patients’ lives in danger because of lapses in oversight, and highlighted doctors with a high incident of malpractice payouts who are still licensed without being disciplined. According to the president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and a Pro Publica reporter, the stories have resulted in new legislation, better transparency and improved patient safety.

Without public access to this information, the public will not be provided information about the negative history of some doctors, hospitals and even state medical board trends. Patients will be unable in some cases to make informed decisions about their own healthcare.

The Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing the public use file and a spokesperson has stated the data bank will be offline for at least six months.