Ouch! Doctors Howl Over Access to Secret Files

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Representative Thomas Bliley might want to hold off on that annual checkup for a couple of months — or at least until his internist calms down over the Virginia Republican's newest proposal. Bliley wants to reopen debate on the confidentiality of the National Practitioner Data Bank, which houses discipline reports on the country's doctors. Bliley says he wants to inform consumers about doctors with questionable records — ranging from sexual assault to failure to correctly fill out a license renewal form — by passing legislation that would require the information to be made available to the general public. At present, the Data Bank is open to hospital administrators, licensing boards and HMOs. The Data Bank, established 10 years ago, was opened in large part to keep track of physicians convicted of crimes in one state who simply cross state lines to duck their criminal records. Because regulation of docs rests in the hands of the states, the national legislature was eager to find a way to monitor doctors' movements; they came up with the Data Bank.

Predictably, the American Medical Association opposes opening the Data Bank to public eyes, on the grounds that it maintains records of groundless or dismissed malpractice suits, which could unfairly poison a good physician's career. It is unclear whether Bliley has much support for his measure, which has failed to pass Congress in the past. In addition, points out TIME medical correspondent Christine Gorman, the information contained in the Data Bank is largely available from other sources. "In fact," says Gorman, "the government is not always the best source of information. There are lots of reputable Internet sites and consumer advocacy groups that can provide the same, or better, information as the federal database." And in this case, the national database may not be particularly useful to anyone: "The National Practitioner Data Bank was established under the guise of confidentiality, and the information is provided voluntarily by doctors and hospitals," says Gorman. "If the public has access to the reports, how many doctors or hospitals will keep handing them over?" Probably not many. And indeed, the Associated Press reports that since the Data Bank's 1990 inception, two thirds of hospitals have never filed a disciplinary report.