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Should the Public Have Access to a Database of Doctors Accused of Medical Malpractice?

Many patient safety advocates are speaking out against new restrictions on public access to information contained within the National Practitioners Data Bank, a federal database of doctors around the country who have been subject to disciplinary actions or medical malpractice claims.

This fall, the Department of Health and Human Services blocked access to the public use data file that contained non-identifying information about doctors, after a doctor complained that their history of problems was revealed in The Kansas City Star. Although HHS has now unlocked the public use file on the federal website, it placed new restrictions on its use, requiring that researchers and journalists agree not to use information from the NPDB in conjunction with other public data in order to identify doctors facing medical malpractice claims or other disciplinary proceedings.

Prior to the recent changes, the public use database was utilized by reporters to inform the public about medical malpractice, medical licensing disciplinary actions, and hospital actions. Researchers also used the data to analyze trends surrounding medical mistakes and other patient safety concerns.

Placing those limitations on the information in the database is wrong, says Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

She argues, “When information held by the government is declared ‘public’ there should be no strings attached to the use of that data. The elephant in the room during this whole controversy is that most of this information is public in other places and should be public at the NPDB. It’s time to provide the public full access to this critical information, including the names of doctors who have been disciplined by state licensing boards or sued for failing to provide safe care.”

It appears that many patients agree. A Consumer Reports survey from earlier this year found that almost 9 in 10 respondents (88 percent) said the public should have access to federally collected information about disciplined doctors.