HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration has reposted the public-use file of its National Practitioner Data Bank, but it has done so with conditions that one critic doubts will work and another calls "unacceptable."
Critics not satisfied after public access to doc discipline database is restored
The data bank's public use file contains de-identified information on disciplinary actions against physicians and, in a statement posted on the data bank's website, HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield touts this data as being available for statistical analysis and reports on malpractice trends.
The public use file had been removed from the website on Sept. 1 after a Kansas City Star reporter was able to ascertain the identity of a doctor by comparing data in the file with court records. So now, in order to gain access to the public use file, individuals will have to agree to terms in a new data use agreement that requires that data in the public use file cannot be used in combination with other information sources to identify individuals involved in disciplinary or legal proceedings. If data are used for that purpose, under terms of the agreement, the individual will be required to "return, delete or otherwise permanently dispose of all copies of the data that are in their possession."
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been crusading for the restoration of the public use file, was not satisfied with terms of the data use agreement.
“It's also hard to see how HRSA has the resources to require the return of supposedly misused data or how that would even work,” Grassley said in a news release. “It seems the agency's time would be better used in making sure the database is up to date and as useful as possible.”
Dr. Sidney Wolfe, a member of the data bank's executive committee and director of the Public Citizen consumer advocacy group's Health Research Group, also criticized HRSA's move.
“For users of these data such as Public Citizen, academic researchers and journalists, the restoration of the National Practitioner Data Bank's public use file is an important step in the right direction since the file has been down for more than two months,” Wolfe said in a news release. “There is no question that half a loaf is better than none. But the exclusion from access by reporters doing important investigative work to improve patient safety by providing the public with more information about doctors and pressing for reform of medical board and hospital discipline is unacceptable.”
Wolfe noted that an increasing number of medical boards were posting the names of doctors involved in disciplinary actions, and that Public Citizen will join with others “to liberate the other half of this important loaf” of information.
Grassley also said he would seek opinions as to whether HRSA was accurately interpreting the legislation that created the data bank.
“Nowhere in the law does it say a reporter can't use the data in the public use file to combine that with other sources and potentially identify doctors who have been disciplined in their practice of medicine,” Grassley said in the release. “This agency needs to remember that half of all healthcare dollars in the United States comes from taxpayers, so the interpretation of the law ought to be for public benefit.”
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