National Practitioner Data Bank “Public” Use Data File Should Actually Be Public

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Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project released a statement calling for public access to information in the National Practitioners Data Bank (NPDB), a federal agency that collects information on problem doctors with a history of sanctions by state medical boards and hospitals and lawsuit payouts for harming patients.

A Consumer Reports national poll found that almost 9 in 10 Americans (88%) said the public should have access to federally collected information about problems with doctors.

Under pressure, the HHS restored access to the NPDB’s Public Use Data File last week, which it removed in September after the agency received a complaint from a doctor whose history of malpractice claims was revealed in a newspaper article. Now that the data has been restored, journalists may query the Data Bank, but there are new strings attached that fly in the face of the meaning of “public information” as it is used in federal law.

But let’s talk about the real problem here: consumers cannot easily find public information about doctors with a history of bad behavior. For example, state medical boards are supposed to keep track of important information on doctors, but when doctors practice in multiple states, one board may not be aware of what another board has done. It is possible for a doctor to lose a license in one state for harming patients and continue to practice in another, leaving innocent patients unaware of the doctor’s prior problems. And while some states are more transparent than others, overall, state medical boards do a “terrible job protecting patients and informing the public,” according to a medical board analysis by Antidote. The National Practitioner Database is the one place where all of this information is pulled together. If the federal government opened this data to the public, with physicians’ names, it would go a long way towards helping consumers get the information they need when choosing a doctor.

Most doctors do not have a history of problems, but consumers have no way of distinguishing those who don’t from those who do. Hospitals, insurers, state licensing boards and other health care entities have always had full access to the information in the Public Use Data File, including doctors’ names. We think patients should be given the same access – and most Americans agree with us. There is no rational reason for keeping such information secret.