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Malpractice database takedown has journalists enraged

An uproar was caused when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services abruptly took down The National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) Public Use Data File which journalists have relied on since 1986 as a source for information on medical malpractice. The database tracks doctors' records of medical malpractice, discipline and medical errors and is a vital resource for those monitoring the nation's medical malpractice problems.

"Reporters across the country have used the public use file to write stories that have exposed serious lapses in the oversight of doctors that have put patients at risk," the president of the Association of Health Care Journalists said. "Their stories have led to new legislation, additional levels of transparency in various states, and kept medical boards focused on issues of patient safety."

The takedown was prompted by a complaint from a neurosurgeon based in Kansas who had been exposed by a local newspaper as having a history of malpractice. The Kansas City Star published an article based on research from the NPDB titled "Doctors With Histories of Alleged Malpractice Often Go Undisciplined." Several other newspapers also wrote similar stories based in part on NPDB research.

Although the NPDB's public file does not contain any names or addresses of doctors, the reporters were able to identify particular doctors based on sweeping searches of court documents, hospital actions and state agency databases.

For its part, HHS says that the NPDB's public file will return sometime. "We are going to do everything we can to get the data back up in a public use file as quickly as we possibly can," a HHS spokesman said. "We want to make sure the public, researchers and reporters have access to all the information that we can legally make available."

Source: New York Times, "Withdrawal of Database on Doctors Is Protested," Duff Wilson, Sept. 15, 2011

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