The free gathering and dissemination of information that is relevant or otherwise of interest to the general public, whether popular or not-so-flattering, has always been an important right in the United States. When our federal government has attempted to limit or control access to relevant and useful information in the past, our journalists, investigators, and researchers have routinely and adamantly protested and fought restrictions on information that may be important to our citizens.
News organizations in the U.S. have recently come together to protest an attempt by the U.S. government to make private and unavailable medical malpractice claims payment information and physician disciplinary actions information that historically had been freely available and made public because of the importance of the information to the general public. During mid-September, 2011, three well-respected journalism organizations formally protested a decision and directive from the Obama Administration that removed from public view a database of physician and malpractice claims information maintained under federal law by the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), which was created in 1986.
On September 1, 2011, the NPDB removed the “public use data file” from its website that contained relevant medical malpractice claims information that already protected the privacy of physicians and other medical providers for whom medical malpractice claims had been paid or against whom disciplinary action had been taken by not making public identifying information such as names and addresses. As a result, researchers, including investigative journalists, became unable to access relevant information they needed and used in helping to protect and inform the public about physician oversight, physician disciplinary actions, and trends in paid medical malpractice claims. Source
The NPDB’s decision to remove the public use data file from its website resulted from an investigation conducted by a reporter for the Kansas City Star who had been investigating whether physicians in Kansas and Missouri were able to continue practicing medicine despite long histories of medical malpractice claims payments. The reporter’s research involved analyzing many records from the NPDB’s public use data file which did not contain identifying information, as well as many court records, state agency records, and records of hospital actions taken against physicians. By carefully analyzing the data from his research, the reporter was able to identify 21 physicians who had at least 10 medical malpractice claims payments made on their behalf but were not subject to discipline in Kansas or Missouri. After a neurosurgeon from Kansas complained to the Health Resources and Services Administration, which is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Administration inquired whether data had been obtained from confidential information contained in the full data bank (which it subsequently determined had been obtained by the reporter from the public use data file of the NPDB only), but the Health Resources and Services Administration caved into the pressure and took its action to make secret and unavailable relevant and important information that previously had a history of being freely available to the public.
In the past, journalists and other researchers and investigators have been able to access and use the data in the public use data file of the NPDB to help spur states legislation to help protect the public from medical malpractice negligence, to raise the transparency of state agencies and boards that deal with physician discipline, and to focus state medical boards on patient safety issues. Removing the public use data file from the NPDB website removes an important tool in the effort to reduce medical malpractice occurrences and the suffering and losses of medical malpractice victims.
The U.S. government should reinstate the public use data file on the NPDB website so that the public interest is given more weight than the self-interest of some physicians and other medical professionals for whom medical malpractice claims were paid or disciplinary actions were taken. (Wouldn’t you want to know if a surgeon who is about to operate on you or a family member has more than 10 paid medical malpractice claims against him/her?)
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