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Warning accompanies restoration of 'bad docs' database

A database of disciplinary action against doctors and other medical professionals that was closed in September has been restored, but with new restrictions intended to prevent reporters from using it to “out” individual doctors with troubled track records.

As detailed almost two months ago in Open Channel, the Health Resources and Services Administration, or HRSA, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, eliminated access to the National Practitioner Data Bank after discovering that reporters had managed to link the data, which masks identifying information, to local malpractice cases and disciplinary cases.

The New York Times reported Thursday that it was taken down “in response to a doctor’s complaint,” and ProPublica published this account.

In any case, HRSA on Wednesday restored the database, but with a new requirement that anyone who uses it agrees not to cross-check it against other public information, such as court files, to put names to the numbers.

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In a statement accompanying the restoration, HRSA Administrator Mary K. Wakefield said that the database remains an important tool “to protect patients from incompetent, unprofessional, and often dangerous health care practitioners.” But noting that federal law restricts the confidential information identifying individual doctors, she said that if the agency discovers a journalist or other individual has used the public version in combination with other sources to identify a problem doctor, “HRSA will ask for the data to be returned.”

Her statement provided no details on how such a demand would work, but it presumably it would occur only after publication of a story linking the data to an individual doctor.

The Times quoted Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and a reporter with the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica, as saying that's one reason the rule appears to lack teeth.

“It’s troubling that a federal agency is telling reporters what they can or can’t do,” he told the newspaper. “And how are they going to enforce this?”