A national databank on disciplinary actions against doctors is now open to the public-for a price.
No, it's not the National Practitioner Data Bank. That will remain off-limits to public scrutiny unless Congress jump-starts last year's stalled legislative effort to provide widespread access to the comprehensive repository of malpractice judgments and disciplinary actions.
For now, at least, consumers checking out doctors will have to be satisfied with the new databank compiled by the Federation of State Medical Boards that currently contains about 113,000 public disciplinary actions against 35,000 physicians across the U.S.
The federation's records-once almost as tightly restricted as the National Practitioner Data Bank--is available to anyone willing to pay $9.95 for each report on disciplinary actions against a doctor.
"All this information has been in our database, consolidated for a long time," said Dale Austin, deputy executive vice president of the federation. "This is the first time it's being made available to the public."
Yet the database, which became available to the public for the first time Jan. 2, hasn't attracted a lot of consumer attention. In the first month, Austin said, the federation logged three search requests from the public.
Sidney Wolfe, M.D., director of the health research group at Public Citizen, a Washington-based public advocacy organization, dismissed the federation's new effort as inconsequential, saying it adds little to the databanks now available through many state medical societies or commercial ventures on the Internet. His group has been highly critical in the past of the disciplinary efforts of state medical boards-and their reluctance to release detailed information about doctors.
"I just don't know how useful this is going to be," Wolfe said.
The federation said 37 states provide the public with some level of information about doctors' credentials, disciplinary actions and background. But that information can be hard to find and often inadequate, according to Wolfe, whose group issued a scathing report last year on the seemingly halfhearted efforts by many states to publicize doctor discipline. In fact, only two states-Massachusetts and Florida-provide the contents of the full text of board reports on disciplinary action, he said.
The databank compiled by the federation, which represents 69 allopathic and osteopathic medical boards in all 50 states and the territories, is viewed as an effort to meet a growing demand from consumers and citizens' groups for more information on their doctors.
But it may not be enough to satisfy consumer advocates like Wolfe, who still want to pry the lid off the National Practitioner Data Bank created by Congress and perhaps the most comprehensive information source of all. Since its debut in 1990, the databank, accessible only to hospitals and insurers, has collected more than 227,000 reports on malpractice judgments and disciplinary actions, including those sanctions imposed by state medical boards.
"It's hard to say whether it's going to be enough to appease anyone," Austin said of the federation's new databank. "But I think, in part, it begins to address some concerns."
The federation's databank is one of a handful of sites on the Internet providing information about doctors' professional profiles and disciplinary history.
In a report issued last year, the American Medical Association said there were at least 10 private-sector firms with some type of physician profiling available over the Internet, including the AMA's own extensive database of about 690,000 doctors; HealthGrades.com, which provides physician ratings and basic profiles; SearchPointe.com, which offers a sanctions report for $9.95; and DoctorDirectory.com, which provides a list of doctors by specialty.
In a slight twist on physician profiling, the National Research Council, a firm with more than two decades of experience in healthcare, has launched what it describes as the nation's first publicly available database that features extensive patient-satisfaction ratings. The Web site, DoctorGuide.com, now includes information on about 470 primary-care physicians based on surveys solicited from more than 36,000 patients in Portland, Ore. The company plans to survey patients and post ratings for thousands of doctors in the nation's 100 largest cities.
Austin said he expects the federation's database, which now contains only public disciplinary actions against physicians, to eventually include biographical, education and licensing information. It does not contain information about malpractice lawsuits, which account for about three-fourths of all the actions listed against physicians in the National Practitioner Data Bank.
Last year, Rep. Thomas Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) launched a one-man effort to make the national databank available to the public. Bliley, who received little support for his measure, has since retired and the prospects of a serious similar effort in the 107th Congress appear unlikely.
Wolfe said he will continue to lobby for legislation to open the national databank. "The majority of the people in America want that databank open," he said. "When you're looking for a doctor, you want to find out as much information as you can."
AMA officials, who fiercely oppose opening the national databank, call the federation's effort the fairest and most comprehensive way for the public to judge doctors. Malpractice judgments-often settled against the doctor's wishes-can't be used to properly judge a doctor's fitness, according to the AMA.
In testimony last year before Congress, Richard Corlin, M.D., the AMA's president-elect, said the federation and state medical boards now combine to provide all the information any consumer needs.