National Doctor Database Open, but Restricted

When federal health officials closed the public website that allowed people to view statistics regarding medical malpractice and disciplinary action against doctors, consumer safety groups protested. It was hard to see why the government would want to prevent people from finding more information about the potential for medical malpractice. The Health and Human Services agency has finally relented and has re-opened the National Practitioner Data Bank. Unfortunately, use of the website now comes with restrictions. Users must agree that the data will not be disseminated publicly and that it will not be used to connect specific doctors with the anonymous entries recorded in the site. Critics say the website should be used for the benefit of the public, including the ability to identify doctors who have a history of providing substandard care.

The government has apparently decided that a doctor’s right to hide a history of medical malpractice payments is more important than a prospective patient’s right to know of that history in advance. Many safety advocates would prefer that the public database be expanded to make the information more accessible. Instead, HRSA has decided to ban the practice that has allowed journalists to uncover situations that threatened the safety of countless patients and led to important reforms in the medical field.

Whether the HRSA has the authority to limit how the public database is used is up for debate. The law that established the Data Bank placed no restrictions on how the data could be used. Any attempt to restrict how journalists use publicly available information is bound to end in failure. Lawmakers are currently reviewing the new policy.

Medical malpractice is a serious issue. Past use of the Data Bank has allowed members of the media to uncover flaws in state licensing and expose doctors who had injured countless patients through carelessness. Any tool that can be used to protect a patient’s health should not be restricted by the government.

Source: The Kansas City Star, “After protests, nation doctor database reopens – with a catch,” Alan Bavley, 10 November 2011