Questions raised about open physician data bank

Public can access info on lawsuits, discipline

Capitol Hill lawmakers and officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) have joined with providers in questioning the usefulness of opening to the general public a federal data bank containing adverse regulatory and legal actions taken against physicians and dentists.

The National Practitioner Data Bank was created 10 years ago to help state licensing agents and hospitals make credentialing decisions. Since last March, its files have been open to public scrutiny. The data bank was never intended "as a tool for use by the general public in evaluating physician competence," says U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the House Commerce Committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee.

HHS, which operates the data bank, also has opposed giving the public free access to the files. There are "serious privacy concerns . . . raised by the specter of public disclosure of [this] information," notes Richard J. Tarplin, HHS assistant secretary for legislation. Moreover, "the information collected in the data bank was never intended to serve as a complete history but rather as an important supplement to comprehensive and careful professional peer review of a practitioner’s credentials," he says.

However, Commerce Committee chairman Thomas Bliley (R-VA) favors keeping the data bank open to the public. "I want to empower patients by giving them the keys to this locked national database," he says.

The data bank contains information on more than 229,000 malpractice payments and adverse licensure, clinical privileges, and professional association actions taken against some 146,000 physicians and dentists.

Opponents of opening the database point out that much of the information it contains, especially malpractice information, may be more misleading than helpful to consumers trying to locate a qualified physician or check their current doctor’s background. Those opponents argue that certain medical procedures are riskier and tend to attract more litigation. Plus, insurers often push physicians to settle claims rather than engage in expensive legal battles.

"Some of our country’s best physicians are involved in settlements, yet this data bank contains nothing that also reflects their high level of competence," notes American Medical Association president Thomas Reardon, MD.