Journalism organizations offer data government blocked from public

Another development in the protest by three key journalism groups to the Obama administration’s decision to block public access to a public database of physician discipline and malpractice: Now, Investigative Reporters and Editors, working with the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists, has posted the data for download, free to the public.

The data are posted for the entire U.S. in the original text format with documentation. IRE has also made available state-by-state Excel spreadsheet files.

On Thursday, the groups sent a letter protesting the decision to pull offline a 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.

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.

“We applaud IRE for making this data available for free to the media, researchers and the public,” said Charles Ornstein, AHCJ’s president. “While the government has decided that this ‘public use file’ should no longer be public, our organizations believe that it continues to be a critical resource. I encourage reporters, even those who have never used it before, to look for stories within it now.”

Journalists have used the data for years to draw attention to troubled physicians and state inaction. Recent examples include the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Duluth (Minn) News-Tribune and The Kansas City Star. Other examples over the years have included The Hartford (Conn.) Courant and the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer.

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.

Several news outlets – The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Reuters and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – are following the story.

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