The Association of Health Care Journalists, joined by the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors, sent a letter to the Obama administration today protesting its decision to pull offline a public database of physician discipline and malpractice payments.
AHCJ, SPJ and IRE called for the government to immediately restore access to the Public Use File of the National Practitioner Data Bank. The government has made this file available online for years, and reporters have used it to call attention to lax oversight of physicians across the country.
Pursuant to the law, the public version of the database does not identify physicians by name or address, but it does provide other useful information about hospital sanctions, malpractice payouts and state disciplinary actions against every doctor in the country.
As an example, the database would allow a reporter or researcher to discover that certain, unnamed physicians have been sanctioned repeatedly by their hospitals but never were disciplined by their state’s medical board. It would also be possible to find doctors with lengthy trails of malpractice who continued to enjoy clear licenses.
The groups also expressed their deep disappointment that the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration threatened a reporter from The Kansas City Star with financial penalties if he proceeded to write a story about a local neurosurgeon using information he gleaned from the public version of the database on the agency’s website. The newspaper published its story anyway on Sept. 4. The doctor’s attorney complained to the agency, prompting officials to remove the database from its website on Sept. 1.
The government said that it had to act now because reporters were able to link information in the data bank to specific doctors, and the law prohibits the public use file from identifying doctors. A HRSA spokesman said the data bank will be offline for at least six months and may never return unless the physician privacy concerns are adequately addressed.
AHCJ President Charles Ornstein said he was puzzled by HRSA’s sudden action because reporters have used the public version of the data bank for years to assist in their reporting and learn additional details about physicians they already had been researching.
“We are troubled that the Obama administration appears to have placed the interests of physicians ahead of the safety of patients,” Ornstein said. “Attempting to intimidate a reporter from using information on a government website is a serious abuse of power.”
Stories written by reporters using the public version of the National Practitioner Data Bank have drawn attention to troubled physicians and state inaction. Recent examples include the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Duluth (Minn) News-Tribune and the Star. Other examples over the years have included The Hartford (Conn.) Courant and the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer.
Some of these stories have resulted in new legislation and other steps that protect patients, by increasing transparency and sometimes toughening requirements on doctors.
The groups wrote that if HRSA determines the public version of the database violates the law in any way, it should seek swift legislative changes to remedy the problem and once again make the database available.
“In one stroke, the very administration that promised greater transparency not only excludes information of obvious public value to patients across this country but threatens legal action against a reporter for using public records,” said SPJ President Hagit Limor. “This is clearly outrageous.”
IRE President Manny Garcia said, “The removal of the Public Use File - whose very name means for public use – eliminates a valuable tool for journalists whose goal is to educate and protect the public. This database has allowed reporters to uncover flaws that have toughened legislation, and without a doubt, saved the lives of patients across the country.
“We are also stunned that a public servant has the hubris to threaten a health care reporter for doing his job. HRSA should be delighted that journalists are using public information to help saves lives, but in this instance the response is: get lost or get fined.”