Consumers Union: Public Should Have Full Access to Doctor Database, Including Names of Problem Physicians

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Consumers Union: Public Should Have Full Access to Doctor Database, Including Names of Problem Physicians 

Consumer Reports Poll: Almost 9 in 10 Americans Say Public
Should Have Access to Information Collected by Feds on Doctors


WASHINGTON, D.C. – The public should have full access to a government database on problem doctors, including the names of physicians with a history of harming patients, according to Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project.

Consumers Union highlighted the need for greater public access to the National Practitioners Data Bank (NPDB) following a recent controversy over the federal database. In September, the Department of Health and Human Services removed the Public Use Data File of the NPDB from online because the agency received a complaint from a doctor whose history of malpractice claims was revealed in a newspaper article. The reporter had researched the doctor’s publicly available court and state disciplinary records, which enabled him to match further information available on the doctor at the NPDB.

Last week, HHS restored public access to the database but with new limitations on its use – thus challenging the meaning of “public information.” Among other things, HHS is requiring researchers to agree not to use information from the National Practitioners Data Bank along with other public data to identify doctors who have been subject to disciplinary actions or malpractice claims.

“When information held by the government is declared ‘public’ there should be no strings attached to the use of that data,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project “The elephant in the room during this whole controversy is that most of this information is public in other places and should be public at the NPDB. It’s time to provide the public full access to this critical information, including the names of doctors who have been disciplined by state licensing boards or sued for failing to provide safe care.”

A January 2011 Consumer Reports National Research Center poll found overwhelming support for giving the public access to the information the federal government collects on doctors. Almost 9 in 10 respondents (88%) said the public should have access to federally collected information about problems with doctors.

The Public Use Data File of the NPDB 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. Under current law, HHS must make a Public Use Data File available while keeping the identity of doctors confidential. Hospitals, insurers, state licensing boards and other health care entities are given access to the full information (including doctors’ names) so they can check it when doctors apply for licenses and privileges to practice.

“The public should have the same access to this information as hospitals and state licensing boards,” said McGiffert. “Because doctors often work in multiple states, losing a license in one state might not translate to losing a license in another. One of the original purposes of the doctor database was to keep track of doctors with licenses in multiple states. Currently, except for checking every states’ medical board website, the public has no central source to find out this critical patient safety information.”

The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a telephone survey using a nationally representative probability sample of telephone households. 1,026 interviews were completed among adults aged 18+. Interviewing took place over January 28-31, 2011. The sampling error is +/- 3.1 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.