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CU urges HHS to restore online doctor database

September 15, 2011

Consumers Union Calls On HHS To Restore Online Access
To National Practitioners Data Bank’s Public File

HHS Decision To Remove Online Data File Limits Public Access
& Runs Counter to Administration Pledge To Promote Transparency

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project urged the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today to reverse its decision to remove online access to the Public Use Data File of the National Practitioners Data Bank. In a letter sent to the agency, the group noted that removing the online data file runs counter to the Obama Administration’s commitment to make it easier for the public to gain access to data collected by the government.

The Public Use Data File has been used for the past 15 years by researchers to analyze trends and by reporters to provide the public with essential information about medical malpractice, medical licensing disciplinary actions, and peer review actions. It does not disclose doctor-specific information and therefore does not violate confidentiality requirements.

The information by law is public and must be made available to those who request it. Taking the data off line means that it can only be accessed through individual requests, which will make it more difficult to obtain and increase the workload of the agency.

“The Public Use Data File is the only comprehensive resource available in the country of physician oversight,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project (www.SafePatientProject.org). “HHS should restore online access to this information immediately.”

A full copy of Consumers Union’s letter to HHS follows:

September 15, 2011

Mary K. Wakefield, Ph.D., R.N.
Administrator
Health Resources and Services Administration
Department of Health and Human Services
500 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857

Dear Dr. Wakefield:

This letter is to lodge Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project objection to the September 1 action by HRSA to remove online access to the Public Use Data File of the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB).

The Public Use File has been used for the past 15 years by researchers to analyze trends and by reporters to provide the public with essential information about medical malpractice, medical licensing disciplinary actions, and peer review actions. Although the law does not require HRSA to post an online version of the data, it just makes good sense to do so. The information by law is public and available to those who request it. Taking this data off line will merely increase the workload of the agency in handling individual FOIA requests for the data.

Further, the removal of this information – most of which is already public somewhere else – runs counter to the policies of the current administration to “establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.” President Obama’s December 2009 directive specifically requires each agency to “take prompt steps to expand access to information by making it available online in open formats” “that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications.” The directive further states that “agencies should proactively use modern technology to disseminate useful information, rather than waiting for specific requests under FOIA.”

Unfortunately, this Public Use File is the only comprehensive resource available in the country about physician oversight. It provides information important to consumers — such as medical malpractice lawsuits, actions taken by medical boards to restrict physicians’ practices because of harm to patients, and serious suspensions or revocations of hospital privileges. However, the file does not contain any information that identifies any physician and therefore does not violate confidentiality requirements. The records of individual physicians in the file can potentially be identified only if one already knows from other sources extensive information about the physician and his or her malpractice payments or other actions. Even with these limitations, the Public Use File is a valuable resource for understanding the nature of physicians’ practices in America.

We respectfully request that the NPDB Public Use File be returned to online access immediately.

Sincerely,

Lisa McGiffert
Director, Consumers Union Safe Patient Project

Michael McCauley: 415-431-6747, ext 126

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