The national database that tracks malpractice payments and physician sanctions—but doesn't publicly list the physicians' names—has made its data file inaccessible to the public out of concern that the pieces of information being disclosed were being "triangulated" with other publicly accessible data sources to determine the identities of doctors listed.
National doc database removed from public view
"The National Practitioner Data Bank was never meant to be a public file," said Martin Kramer, a spokesman for the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration. "By statute, it's not a public file."
The file, which lists sanctions against physicians by state medical boards, hospitals, medical societies and the Drug Enforcement Administration and has historically been updated four times a year, "is designed to provide data for statistical analysis only," according to the NPDB section on the HRSA website. The names of physicians identified in the reports are available only to state medical boards and hospital and healthcare organizations to which doctors may apply for employment, a medical staff appointment or clinical privileges.
However, some newspapers—most recently, the Kansas City (Mo.) Star—took information from the NPDB public use data file and compared it with names of certain local doctors listed in court filings. HRSA reacted by shutting down the previously publicly available data file on Sept. 1.
"It's not permanent," Kramer said, but he added that it will down for at least six months as officials review options and procedures for making it more difficult to ascertain the identities of physicians in the reports.
The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has long maintained that the NPDB had its shortcomings but was still useful and provided valuable information to the public and for the organization's research efforts. In a Sept. 13 letter to HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield, Public Citizen maintained, "There simply is no substitute for the NPDB Public Use Data File if this vital research is to be continued."
"We also find it ironic that at a time in which other parts of the Department of Health and Human Services are becoming more transparent and even proposing to make detailed ratings of healthcare entities and providers available to the public, HRSA appears to be restricting access to information mandated by law to be made public," concluded Dr. Michael Carome, deputy director of Public Citizen's health research group, in the letter.
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