In a letter to key members of Congress and to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, six prominent journalism organizations are asking that a database containing statistical information on doctors' malpractice histories be made public again.
The National Practitioner Data Bank took its public use file off its website Sept. 1 after it learned that The Kansas City Star was able to glean information about a Johnson County neurosurgeon from anonymous data in the files. Previously, other newspapers have identified doctors from the public use file without repercussions.
In their letter, released Wednesday, the journalism groups called the public use files “a vital government resource used by reporters and others to expose flawed oversight of doctors around the country.”
“Without stories written by our members, it's fair to say that some unsafe doctors would continue to be practicing with clean licenses and patient protection legislation in several states likely would not have been enacted,” the letter said.
The National Practitioner Data Bank is an HHS agency that compiles information about malpractice payouts, hospital discipline and regulatory sanctions against doctors and other health professionals. State medical boards, hospitals and insurance plans use this information when assessing applications for licenses or staff privileges.
Only the data bank's public use file, which removes names and other identifying information, is available to journalists and other members of the public.
The Star used the public use file to investigate how the Kansas and Missouri medical boards discipline doctors with extensive histories of malpractice payouts.
In a story published Sept. 4, The Star reported finding 21 doctors in the two states who had 10 or more payouts, but had not been disciplined.
The Star story also detailed the history of one of the 21 doctors, neurosurgeon Robert Tenny. The newspaper was able to identify Tenny in the data bank by comparing the information to court records.
After being contacted by The Star for comment about lawsuits and information in the data bank, Tenny's attorney complained to the data bank.
The data bank then sent a letter to The Star notifying it of civil fines that can be imposed for improper use of its confidential information.
The Star, which had used only the data bank's public use file, did not remove from its story the material about Tenny that it discovered there.
The data bank may make the public use file available again, a spokesman has said. But that process probably will take at least six months and the files may not return in the same format.
The groups calling for restoration of the public use file include the Association of Health Care Journalists, Investigative Reporters & Editors, the National Association of Science Writers, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Consumers Union and Public Citizen's Health Research Group, which advocate for patient safety, also have asked that the data bank file be made public again.