Doctor Disciplinary Records Being Removed From Public Viewing Causes Patient Safety Concerns January 13, 2012.

Most people want to know if their doctor has been accused of medical malpractice or disciplined for it. We are, after all, put our health in our doctor’s hands.

Recently there was a rather bitter controversy over whether or not a doctor’s disciplinary information should be available, and if so, how much information should be available. Those embroiled in the debate are the American Medical Association (AMA) and consumer rights groups and journalists. The reason the debate exploded was in response to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department taking disciplinary information out of their online database.

Why was the disciplinary information removed in the first place? They removed it because news organizations used the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) to point a finger of blame at doctors frequently accused of medical malpractice, but had not faced any discipline.

The very idea that a doctor was accused of medical malpractice but not disciplined may be viewed two ways. The first is that it was a one-time incident, and on examination of the facts, was not considered medical malpractice. To be fair, not all bad outcomes with a doctor are the result of medical malpractice. Some are genuinely unforeseen circumstances. However, if a doctor has been accused of medical malpractice more than once, has a history of patients complaining, and more than one lawsuit pending, this is a different scenario altogether.

The NPDB is the repository for information on payments in medical malpractice cases and keeps records on physician’s disciplinary actions. Congress created this data bank with the idea of improving health care. Health plans, state licensing boards, hospitals and other health care organizations use the database to determine if a doctor may be approved for a license, permitted to work, or granted admitting/clinical privileges. Journalists have used the information on the database, despite the fact it does not reveal doctors’ names or addresses.

Health and Human Services feels it was justified in taking the information down from the website to protect doctors’ anonymity largely because federal law says that type of intelligence must stay confidential. Of course, the AMA agreed. The burning question then becomes how the removal of the information will affect patient safety; something no one else but patients (and their attorneys) seem to be worried about.

The AMA, in its defense, says the database is not reliable and not an accurate indicator of a doctor’s qualifications or competence. What is worse? Knowing the doctor has a history of patient complaints and medical malpractice accusations and thus making an informed decision about seeing them, or knowing nothing and finding out later the doctor botched a procedure and caused you harm. Additionally, if the database is not reliable or accurate, why isn’t it reliable and accurate? That is a frightening thing. What does that say about the AMA’s attitude about patient care?

Do you want to know if your doctor has faced disciplinary action? Been sued for medical malpractice more than once? Been sanctioned by the state licensing board? This is something to think about, particularly since it is your right to have quality health care. If you want quality health care, you would obviously want a doctor that has not been sued for medical malpractice.