U.S. Reopens Doctor Data Access, With Some Caveats

November 10, 2011

The U.S. government reopened public access to a database of malpractice claims and damages paid by doctors, with new restrictions that would prohibit using it in any way to identify the physicians.

Consumer advocates and journalism groups for the past two months have been fighting a decision by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to cut access to its “public use file” of the database over concerns of a breach of one doctor’s confidentiality.

HRSA is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency Wednesday reinstated the public use file, but with three new restrictions.

One prohibits using the data alone, or in combination with other research, to identify any of the doctors or entities. A second requires that people return, delete or destroy copies of the data at HRSA’s request. The third bans reposting of the raw data and only allows its disclosure as part of statistical reporting or analysis.

“I credit the Obama administration for working with journalists toward a solution, but I don’t think this is a workable solution,” said Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, one of the groups that had protested the closing of the public file.

“How can the government say the data is public but then have the data come with strings attached?”

Since 1986, HRSA has tracked troubled doctors’ records in the National Practitioners Data Bank, an electronic database that by law is confidential and open only to hospitals, state licensing boards and other eligible healthcare entities.

The public could access a version of the database stripped of all identifiable elements. In September, a Kansas City Star reporter wrote a story that combined the data with his research of court records to identify details about a local neurosurgeon and expose his history of being sued for alleged malpractice.

HRSA shut the public use file out of concern that it aided in breaking confidentiality of a specific doctor. With new restrictions, journalists could not use the data to cross-check other reporting for similar stories, Ornstein said.

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh in Washington, editing by Bernard Orr)

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