The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has shut down public access to its National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB). The NPDB contains confidential information on malpractice awards and disciplinary actions against physicians.

This information is used by hospitals, health insurance companies, and medical boards to grant licenses and privileges. A public component of the data bank allowed the public to see a version of the information that did not contain identifying information such as names and hospitals. The public version did not show specific dollar amounts of awards, or specific ages (rather, it used age ranges).

HHS decided to shut down public access to the data bank due to what it called the media’s ability to “triangulate” the confidential data using court records to find out classified information. It has been reported that a contributing factor to the HHS decision was a complaint by a surgeon who was mentioned in an article in the Kansas City Star.

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The reporter who wrote the article, which was about the reluctance of state regulators to discipline doctors with histories of malpractice, used several sources to write his story—one of which was the public use file of the NPDB. Based on this one complaint, the HHS decided to remove public access.

“The public use file for the National Practitioner Data Bank was removed because we have a responsibility to uphold the law that created the data bank that states that information about individual practitioners must remain confidential,” said HHS spokesman Martin Kramer.

The move has sparked outrage among journalists and consumer advocacy groups such as Public Citizen, Consumers Union, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Association of Health Care Journalists, and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has also publicly criticized the move, writing that “shutting down public access to the data bank undermines the critical mission of identifying inefficiencies within our health care system — particularly at the expense of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.”