Journalists, researchers renew call for access to data during public call

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Officials at the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration held a conference call on Thursday to seek input from the public about the future of the National Practitioner Data Bank’s Public Use File. Reporters and researchers had a similar response: Bring it back.

HRSA removed the public version of the doctor discipline database last month because officials said they were concerned a reporter had used it inappropriately to identify physicians.

But journalists, led by AHCJ president Charles Ornstein, and researchers told HRSA officials they believe the agency overreacted or was misinterpreting the law. Ornstein and others pointed out that  the public version of the data bank had been used by reporters to expose faulty oversight of physicians by state medical boards, leading to greater transparency and additional patient protections.

“I implore you not to go backwards and implore you not to increase secrecy but rather to restore the Public Use File as it was,” said John Ensslin, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The National Practitioner Data Bank is a confidential system that compiles malpractice payouts, hospital discipline and regulatory sanctions against doctors and other health professionals. Pursuant to the law, the public version of the database did not identify physicians by name or address, but did provide other useful information about hospital sanctions, malpractice payouts and state disciplinary actions against doctors across the country.

HRSA says it took the Public Use File offline after a lawyer representing a physician complained that Kansas City Star reporter Alan Bavley had obtained information improperly from the data bank. HRSA threatened Bavley with monetary sanctions if his paper ran the story. His article ran Sept. 4, prominently featuring the doctor and using the Public Use File to fill in details about him. HRSA did not pursue fines against Bavley.

Six national journalism organizations, as well as consumer groups and academic researchers, have formally objected to HRSA’s decision to take the database off its website. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, condemned the decision in a letter to HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“The idea of taking down the Public Use File is really a big deal. There is no substitute for having it,” said Sidney Wolfe, M.D., director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “The case can’t be stronger for having the data bank in the form that it used to be in.”

Cynthia Grubbs, director of the division of Practitioner Data Banks, gave no commitment about whether the Public Use File would return or in what format.

“We understand you have concerns with that decision,” she said at the beginning of the call. “We are trying to balance the need to protect confidentiality under the data bank statute with our continued desire to shine a bright light” on the quality and safety of patient care across the country.

Grubbs asked a series of questions about how HRSA could provide usable information on its website, including charts and graphs.

But Jeremy Kohler, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said, “It is not even close to a substitute for restoring the raw data that was on the data bank before.”

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