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US data on 'bad doctors' closed to the public

The Obama administration has closed public access to its database of disciplinary action against doctors and other medical professionals, basically because reporters were getting too good at using it.

The Department of Health and Human Services compiles a National Practitioner Data Bank to centralize reports on malpractice cases and licensing board actions against individual doctors and health care companies. The idea is to make it harder for practitioners who've been hit with disciplinary actions or malpractice judgments to move to other states and get new licenses. 

Four times a year, HHS has published a version of the database to the public. Because the database is supposed to be confidential, it's scrubbed of names, addresses and other information that patients, lawyers and reporters could use to identify who's in it. Still, because it provides a wealth of aggregate information, the quarterly summary has been a regular source of medical stories for a quarter-century. (As recently as June, the database was generating stories like this one, reporting that half of U.S. malpractice payments involve patients seen outside a hospital.)

Or at least it did until this month, when HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration added this sentence to the databank's Web page:

The NPDB Public Use Data File is not available until further notice.

The Kansas City Star says it's largely to blame, reporting that HRSA took the action "shortly after it learned The Kansas City Star planned to use its reports" for a story on doctors who have frequently been accused of malpractice but who have escaped the attention of the Kansas or Missouri medical boards.

An HRSA spokesman told the Star that while the agency was bound by federal law to keep the data confidential, reporters had been able to "triangulate on data bank data" to put names to reports.

Health news from msnbc.com

Journalism and health care advocacy groups said they were troubled by what they characterized as a retreat from government openness by the Obama administration. 

Three of them — the Association of Health Care Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists — fired off a letter to the administration (.pdf) protesting removal of "a data resource that has been available for years to the general public, the media and researchers" and what they characterized as HRSA's "intimidation" of a Star reporter, citing a letter the agency sent to the paper (.pdf).

HRSA told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by e-mail that it is reviewing its procedures for "disclosing information in a form that does not permit the identification of any particular health care entity, physician, other health care practitioner, or patient." It said public access could resume after "a thorough analysis of the data fields" to ensure confidentiality.