IRE News

Doctor data closed by federal government available through journalism groups’ efforts

As part of an effort by three journalism organizations to maintain public access to an important database of physician discipline records, that data is now being made available free of charge through the IRE website.

Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Association of Health Care Journalists and theSociety of Professional Journalists have protested the government’s decision to cut off access to The National Practitioner Data Bank, which has been used by reporters for many years to investigate issues involving lax oversight of physicians. The version of the data that has traditionally been publicly available does not identify doctors, but contains other important information that allows journalists and others to look for trends in disciplinary actions. The data has been part of IRE’s Database Library, which obtains federal government data and makes it easier for journalists to use.

A recently updated version of the data is now being offered free of charge from IRE’s website. The entire data set, current as of August, is available for download, as are individual breakouts of the data by state in Excel files that are ready for fast analysis. IRE also has filed a Freedom of Information request for the most up-to-date version of the database and is awaiting a response.

The public use file is being reviewed and changes may be made to further assure confidentiality before public access is restored, an official told The New York Times.

The journalism organizations this week sent a letter to the administration asking that access be immediately restored, and criticizing a threatening letter sent by the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, to a Kansas City Star journalist who used the database for a recent story. The agency warned the reporter that he could be liable for $11,000 or more in civil fines for violating a confidentiality provision of the federal law.

“The removal of the Public Use File — whose very name means for public use — eliminates a valuable tool for journalists whose goal is to educate and protect the public. This database has allowed reporters to uncover flaws that have toughened legislation, and without a doubt, saved the lives of patients across the country,” said IRE Board President Manny Garcia.

“We are also stunned that a public servant has the hubris to threaten a health care reporter for doing his job,” Garcia said. “HRSA should be delighted that journalists are using public information to help save lives.”

AHCJ President Charles Ornstein said he was puzzled by HRSA’s sudden action because reporters have used the public version of the data bank for years to assist in their reporting and learn additional details about physicians they already had been researching.

“We are troubled that the Obama administration appears to have placed the interests of physicians ahead of the safety of patients,” Ornstein said in a news release. “Attempting to intimidate a reporter from using information on a government website is a serious abuse of power.”

SPJ President Hagit Limor stated that “in one stroke, the very administration that promised greater  transparency excluded information of obvious public value to patients across this country, information that had been accessible to journalists for years. This is clearly outrageous.”

To access the data, go to the NPDB download page. There are instructions for how to download the data through an FTP client or the online site.

AHCJ has collected several stories showcasing how journalists have utilized the database to report on malpractice cases and disciplinary action taken against doctors. There have also been several articles about the Obama Administration’s decision to remove the data, including pieces by the The New York TimesLos Angeles Times,Reuters and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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