Health Reporters Unite! How One Doctor's Complaint Turned a Public Database Private | Citizen Media Law Project
Connotea Imports 2012-07-31
"Kansas City Star reporter Alan Bavley had a hunch. After years of investigating the health care industry, Bavley began to suspect that state medical boards did not adequately discipline doctors who committed malpractice....Earlier this year, however, Bavley read a report (.pdf) by Public Citizen that included data on undisciplined doctors who had multiple malpractice payouts. Many of these doctors worked in Kansas and Missouri, the states Bavley covered for the Star. The information came from the "Public Use File" of a government database called the National Practitioner Data Bank ("NPDB"). Since 1986, the NPDB provided medical professionals with information on specific physicians that included malpractice claims or disciplinary cases. The Public Use File contained this data as well, though it did not list physicians by name. Still, in the words of ProPublica's Charles Ornstein, the file "enabled reporters across the country to write stories that exposed serious problems with patient care and patient safety." After learning about this file, Bavley used it to help affirm his hunch and he wrote an enterprising story about the reluctance of state regulators to discipline doctors with penchants for malpractice. What would otherwise be a celebrated victory for open records and the journalists who use them has now become a fight against the Obama Administration for removing that Public Use File. The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services ("HHS"), which runs the NPDB, removed the file on Sept. 1 after a complaint by a neurosurgeon mentioned in Bavley's story who believed the Star reporter misused the site's confidential information...."