President Barack Obama’s administration has gone overboard in trying to protect physicians from the public’s right to glean essential information about their doctors.
A move by the Department of Health and Human Services to shut down an online database betrays promises by Obama and Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to promote transparency in health care. Public access must be restored immediately.
Removal of the National Practitioner Data Bank followed The Kansas City Star’s story about a Kansas neurosurgeon with a trail of malpractice lawsuits. Despite being sanctioned by a hospital and having to pay almost $4 million in response to the lawsuits, Robert Tenny was in good standing with the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts.
The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration held out the possibility of financial penalties if The Star published a story using information from the database. The Star printed the story, and the government shut down the public portion of the data bank, which journalists have used for over a decade to inform the public about doctors whom they entrust with their care.
The public data bank files list disciplinary and malpractice actions against doctors, who are identified by a number rather than a name. Reporters mine the bank for generic stories about problematic doctors and have used other information to learn some physicians’ identities.
Reporting assisted by the data bank has led to reforms in state laws and a greater emphasis on transparency and patient care by state medical boards.
Groups that advocate on behalf of journalists and consumers are protesting the government’s move. The Department of Health and Human Services should listen. Its job is to protect the public, not physicians with records they would like to hide.
The Kansas City Star (Sept. 21)