The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) shut down public access to its National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) in September 2011, stating concerns about the media’s ability to “triangulate” confidential data using court records to reveal classified information.

The NPDB contains confidential information on malpractice awards and disciplinary actions against clinicians. Hospitals, health insurance companies and medical boards use the NPDB when granting licenses and privileges, but a component of the data bank allowed the public to see a version of the information that did not contain indentifying information such as clinician name, ages, hospitals, etc. The public version also did not show specific dollar amounts of awards.

It’s been reported that the contributing factor to the HHS decision was a complaint from a surgeon who was mentioned in an article in the Kansas City Star about the reluctance of state regulators to discipline clinicians with a malpractice history. The reporter who wrote the article used several sources to write his story – one of which was the public-use NPDB file.

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“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 Martin Kramer, a spokesperson for the US Department of HHS’s Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

The move has sparked outrage among journalists and consumer advocacy groups, including 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 in a letter to HRSA. “Shutting down public access to the data bank undermines the critical mission of identifying inefficiencies within our healthcare system — particularly at the expense of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.”