September 1, 2011

Staff at the Department of Health and Human Services has used the term “triangulation” more often over the past few weeks than anyone thought possible. Triangulation is at the bottom of a nationwide controversy about the National Practitioner Data Bank.

The NPDB is the government-sponsored database of adverse actions against all health care providers, including malpractice payments, medical board disciplinary actions and peer review sanctions. Hospitals, insurers and other organizations that credential practitioners have access to identifiable data. That is, they can look up a specific physician’s or dentist’s name to find out what actions have been taken against him or her.

The information available to the public, including reporters and researchers, is “anonymized.” The personal data is stripped, and specific numbers are converted to number ranges.

Enough information is offered, it turns out, to cross-check against state court and disciplinary board records and pinpoint the physician previously known as a string of numbers. A reporter did just this — he triangulated the information — and the HHS agency in charge of the data bank, the Health Resources and Services Administration, pulled the data bank off the Internet.

The result has been a firestorm of criticism from the press and consumer advocates. The data bank is key to making practitioner discipline available (through research) to the public, critics argue, and denying access directly contravenes the Obama administration’s promise of transparency.

HRSA counters that the law establishing the data bank explicitly calls for the data to be unidentifiable. Further, the law requires the data to be available, not available through the Internet. HRSA is “hand processing” requests while the identification problem is resolved.

Some consumer advocates say the names should be available to the public. HRSA says no. Making all the information public would dampen the practitioners’ willingness to report.

Representatives of HRSA said the reworking of the data bank could take several months.

Source: AMedNews.com, “HHS removes public access to National Practitioner Data Bank,” Kevin B. O’Reilly, Sept. 26, 2011


Categories: Blog