After weeks of public outcry, federal officials reopened public access to the National Practitioner Data Bank, a repository for the malpractice and disciplinary records of the nation's health care providers.
The database was shut down after the Kansas City Star used it to publicly identify a physician with a long record of Kansas City medical malpractice claims. Although the database attempts to keep individual practitioners anonymous, the newspaper was able to figure out the doctor's identity by comparing the database with other records, including court filings. Several other newspapers throughout the country have used the database in a similar fashion.
The reopening comes with restrictions on how journalists can use the public database. Now, anyone accessing public files is required to agree not to share data with others or to use the information to identify physicians by name.
Restrictions Limit Public's Access to Information
Investigative journalists have long used the database to expose insufficient state oversight of medical professionals who commit malpractice. Their articles have been used to successfully prevent unsafe doctors from continuing to practice medicine and have spurred legislators to pass patient protection laws in many states.
Patient advocates, journalists and medical malpractice attorneys worry that the new restrictions will limit the public's access to information about unsafe doctors in their community.
The need for investigative journalism is especially pressing considering the fact that, despite significant malpractice payouts, many unsafe doctors continue to have no documentation of misconduct in their licensing records. For example, in the Kansas City Star story that led to the initial shutdown, the paper discovered 21 doctors who had paid numerous malpractice claims but had spotless Kansas and Missouri medical licenses. One of them had been sued at least 16 times since the early 1990s and had paid out approximately $3.7 million to settle the disputes out of court.
Patients must be aware that a clean license does not necessarily mean that a doctor has never been in trouble.
Source: Kansas City Star, "After Protests, National Doctor Database Reopens - With a Catch," Alan Bavley, Nov. 10, 2011.