if there were negligent doctors in pittsburgh would you know

We often think that doctors who are punished for medical malpractice will no longer be able to work. After all, if a doctor has his or her license revoked by a hospital, how could that doctor get rehired at another hospital?

Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward. It is not unheard of for doctors to transfer locations after medical malpractice lawsuits. In some situations, authorities at the new location know about the doctor’s previous trouble. In other situations, the history is kept a secret.

Until recently, however, journalists who knew what they were looking for could research doctors’ histories and expose negligent health care practitioners. Now, the public has no way of identifying doctors who have long records of providing negligent care.

The Department of Health and Human Services recently imposed new rules restricting how researchers and reporters can use the anonymous information stored in government databases.

In the past, journalists who did enough research into court files and state disciplinary records might be able to identify troublesome doctors in the federal database. Often, once the doctor was identified in the database, other information about the doctor’s record might become available.

The Department of Health and Human Services houses a great deal of information about doctors. Doctors are identified by randomly assigned identification numbers. Exact information about doctors’ birthdates and years of practice are not available for the public. However, general information is available. For example, doctors’ ages and graduation dates are each categorized by decade.

A doctor who had a long history of malpractice might not be recognized by name in the HHS database, but investigative journalists could compare the information available from HHS to information from other sources to identify doctors.

Now, the HHS forbids that. And the result is terrifying.

Vulnerable patients may unknowingly work with doctors who have ruined the lives of dozens or hundreds of other patients. But if a doctor does not voluntarily share that information, the patient may have no way of knowing. Read more in our upcoming posts to learn about the ways that anonymity endangers patients.

Source: The Kansas City Star, “Secrecy protects doctors with long histories of problems,” Alan Bavley, Dec. 17, 2011

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