Last month, the Virginia Department of Health Professions launched an extensive online database of physician information, as required by a state law passed in 2000.
Visitors to the Web site can search for doctors licensed in Virginia by location, specialty, hospital affiliation or even office hours, research a physician's educational and professional credentials, and find out whether the doctor sees Medicare and Medicaid patients.
And, for the first time, the public can research whether a Virginia physician ever has had hospital privileges revoked, lost Drug Enforcement Agency authority to prescribe medicine or been convicted of a felony. Records of any medical malpractice claims paid within the past 10 years also appear on the Web site.
Virginia's new database is similar to that of Massachusetts, which pioneered the concept in 1996 by setting up a toll-free hot line. Now, 17 states have enacted physician profile laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Indiana and Georgia joined the list this year.
What Virginia does not have online yet is a listing of notices and orders issued by the state board of medicine against licensed physicians, information that has been part of the public record for years. That portion of the Web site is delayed because lawmakers last month barred the posting of any unsubstantiated charges filed with the medical licensing board.
"It was not the intent of the original legislation," says Mike Jurgensen, director of health policy for the Medical Society of Virginia, which lobbied hard to keep mere allegations out of public view. Virginia will post only cases that result in judgments against doctors, not cases in which physicians are cleared of charges.
Still, many state medical societies nationwide generally support Web-based dissemination of physician data and have offered little opposition to recent legislation.
"I don't think we're opposed to the information being made available to the public as long as they view it with a cautious eye," says Andrea Smiley, spokesperson for the Arizona Medical Association.
In Georgia, the state medical association lent its support to the Patients Right to Know Act, signed into law in April. The law, advocated by WellPoint Health Networks, the Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based insurance company that bought Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia in March, calls for the state's Composite Board of Medical Examiners to create an Internet-based profile on every physician in the state.
Chuck McMullen, lobbyist with the Medical Association of Georgia, says the group supports patients having access to this information.
In the final version of the bill, legislators approved a provision to protect physicians from nuisance malpractice claims, exempting from reporting requirements those who have no more than a single judgment or settlement of $100,000 or less on their records. Lawmakers also defeated a controversial amendment that would have required physicians to disclose how many abortions they had performed.
A new Indiana law gives funding to the state health professions bureau to make its physician data records available online for free. The agency had been charging for some information on the Web site. A telephone hot line has been free, but, says Jim Zieba, director of government relations for the Indiana State Medical Association, the phone service is severely understaffed and thus difficult to use. The Indiana provider profiles list only disciplinary records and do not contain malpractice data.
The Arizona Board of Medical Examiners long has maintained public records of physician disciplinary actions, and it expanded an existing Web site in January.
Arizona now reports cases, settlements and judgments from the past five years, as well as board investigations and actions. "We pushed for there to be as much information as possible," Smiley says.
Tom Adams, deputy director of the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners, reports: "There hasn't been any organized objection. About 10 of the 15,000 doctors (in the state) have made a specific point of contacting us."
Wisconsin, which has collected information on inpatient healthcare services for years, first approved its Physician Data Collection Project in 1998 to build an online physician directory based on a state workforce survey of all physicians and a data collection system for healthcare services delivered in doctors' offices. The physician directory was compiled but remains unavailable online.
"That stuff is public record right now; it's just a pain to get," says Steve Busalicchi, spokesperson for the State Medical Society of Wisconsin.
An amendment passed in 1999 called for any patient data to be aggregated, prohibiting the state from collecting information that would identify specific individuals. Still, three years after the initial bill passed, lawmakers have yet to appropriate money for the effort.