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Congress Debates Access to Doctors Databank


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March 1, 2000 (Washington) -- With several horror stories of physician misconduct before it, a congressional oversight panel today debated allowing the public more access to information on doctors.

The big question before the House Commerce Committee's oversight subcommittee was whether to open up the National Practitioner Databank. Created in 1986 and not accessible by the general public, the databank tracks disciplinary actions by hospitals and medical boards against doctors and includes physician malpractice settlement information.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who helped establish the databank, testified today, "The public is much hungrier today for information about health care quality than it was in 1986."

Lawmakers on the subcommittee noted a front-page New York Times report today on major fines incurred by a Staten Island hospital for not disciplining a neurosurgeon who operated on the wrong side of the brain twice in the past five years.

The panel also heard a firsthand account of a dangerous doctor. Linda Gedz described her real-life nightmare when, six months ago, her ob/gyn, Allan Zarkin, MD, carved his initials in her stomach after performing an emergency cesarean delivery. After being suspended from Beth Israel Medical Center, Zarkin was able to perform procedures for five more months at another facility. Gedz testified passionately for public access to the databank.

Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va., professed "shock" that close to 200 doctors in the databank have at least 13 separate malpractice reports.

But the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Hospital Association tried to get beyond the anecdotes and extremes. The groups asserted that opening the database would do more harm than good, since it contains raw information that does not note a physician's specialty or whether he or she took high-risk cases. According to the AMA's president, Thomas Reardon, MD, "Unrestricted public access would lead to unfair scrutiny of some of our nation's most talented physicians."

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., agreed on the dangers of public access to bad information. "Physicians' reputations and their good names are their most precious possessions," he said.

At the hearing, however, the Massachusetts medical board testified that its publicly available "physician profiles" have brought great public benefit and few problems for doctors. "Countless numbers of patients ... have been given the tools to have more helpful and rewarding discussions with their physicians because they had good information to stimulate that conversation," said Nancy Achin Sullivan, executive director of the board.

The state board provides online consumer access to data on all in-state physicians, including information on paid malpractice claims, hospital disciplinary actions, board disciplinary actions, and criminal history. The program was launched in late 1996.

Reardon argued that a Washington initiative is unnecessary, since 16 state medical boards now have "physician profile" programs for consumers.

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