Should information about a physician’s medical malpractice claims and disciplinary actions be made public? You would think that the answer is a simple, yes, of course, but the question is being hotly debated right now in the news media. The controversy began when the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) removed the National Practitioner Data Bank’s (NPDB) public use file from its website on September 1st. Now journalists are asking the director of HRSA and members of Congress to make the database public again
What’s the Big Deal?
The NPDB is an agency that compiles information about disciplinary actions and sanctions against physicians, as well as payouts in malpractice claims. Medscape News reports that:
“Congress created the NPDB in 1986 to give hospitals, insurers, state medical boards, and other government entities a way to check up on physicians, dentists, and other licensed healthcare professionals.”
Journalists and others feel that making the information available protects the public from unsafe doctors. The idea is that people could use the information to avoid physicians that have had claims frequency problems, or who have had their licenses suspended. In a letter written by several journalism organizations and sent to HRSA, it is stated this way:
“Without stories written by our members, it’s fair to say that some unsafe doctors would continue to be practicing with clean licenses and patient protection legislation in several states likely would not have been enacted.”
In an effort to protect the doctors’ reputations, the public use file actually leaves out the physicians’ names and details that would identify them. However, recently a reporter from the Kansas City Star was able to piece together information from court documents and the NPDB to identify 21 doctors who had 10 or more claims where money was paid out, but no disciplinary action had been taken. This story is what prompted the HRSA to remove the database from public view. Their stance is that information about individual physicians is to remain confidential according to federal law.
Physician groups, including the AMA, would like to keep the information confidential for several reasons.
“The AMA has long opposed public access to the National Practitioner Data Bank and welcomes the decision to stop posting its public data file online to prevent breaches of physician confidentiality in the future,” AMA President Peter Carmel said in a written statement.
Carmel also claims the information is often inaccurate and incomplete. Many times there are duplicate entries, which make a doctor’s history look worse than it really is. Plus, some say it’s not fair to make a judgment about a doctor based on data alone. There are many factors that can lead to a medical malpractice claim such as area of specialty or even geographic location.
On the Other Hand
Coincidentally, Illinois Governor, Pat Quinn, signed a bill in August mandating the creation of an online database containing information on judgments, convictions, and settlements in malpractice lawsuits. The Patient Right to Know Act is designed to protect consumers from physicians with a history of problems.
Proponents of the bill said we get the information we need online to make important decisions like banking or buying a home. So why not also for one of the most important decisions: Choosing a doctor? Illinois is not the first state in the U.S. to make a move like this.
There is no doubt that this debate will go on for a long time. Even if HRSA agrees to put the information back up online for public viewing, the controversy won’t go away. We live in a country where the free flow of information is valued, and the freedom of the press has always been a given. But even these freedoms, as important as they are, have some restrictions. It appears that the trend to let each state decide what’s best for its physicians and healthcare consumers might be the way to go.