Since our September 9th post regarding doctors charged with medical malpractice still practicing, there has been a significant development. As a result of the Kansas City Star's article regarding Dr. Tenny's most recent medical malpractice settlement, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has removed public access to its National Practitioner Data Bank. Even though the information was presented in a way to keep the doctors and hospitals involved in the suits anonymous, journalists were able to compare the database information with medical malpractice court records to determine which entries applied to Dr. Tenny.
The National Practitioner Data Bank became aware of the Kansas City Star's intention of using the data when Dr. Tenny's attorney contacted the association. The journalist reporting the story had contacted Tenny to give him an opportunity to comment on the findings; instead he contacted his attorney. The HHS attempted to persuade the Star to not run the story by mentioning fines that could be imposed for misuse of the data bank information. The Star went ahead with the article and included the information because it was public, not confidential.
According to the spokesperson for HHS, Martin Kramer, the information may be available to the public again in the future, but it is unclear when, or in what format the data would appear. He said federal law requires that the information be confidential and it will take time to review the data and determine how to present it so that it remains confidential.
Several groups, including journalism organizations and the Public Citizen's Health Research Group, have lobbied members of Congress to have the database made available to the public again. A letter submitted by the journalists states, "Without stories written by our members, it's fair to say that some unsafe doctors would continue to be practicing with clean licenses and patient protection legislation in several states likely would not have been enacted." A letter from the Public Citizen's Health Research Group to HHS said "The continued availability of this data is crucial to patient safety and research aimed at informed public policy decisions concerning malpractice, tort reform, peer review, and medical licensing."