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Congress created the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) 10 years ago to establish a central database on information about incompetent or problem physicians to prevent them from moving from state to state without a mechanism to track their performance.
The database, used by hospitals, insurers, and state licensing boards, is controversial in nature because patients cannot access the information. The General Accounting Office (GAO), the Congres-sional watchdog agency, recently criticized the NPDB and the inaccurate, delayed information it contains. The findings are detailed in the GAO’s report, National Practitioner Data Bank: Major Enhancements Are Needed to Enhance Data Bank’s Reliability, made public in November of last year.
Malpractice information, which constitutes roughly 80% of the information in the databank, is a poor indicator of physician qualifications, critics argue. Highly skilled and experienced physicians may be subject to a lawsuit, argue critics of the NPDB.
State licensing boards, professional societies, hospitals, and managed care organizations are the only entities eligible to access the databank. Hospitals are required to check a physician’s status in the databank when the physician applies for clinical privileges — and then every two years subsequently it must be rechecked.
Health Resources and Services Administration deputy administrator Thomas Morford, disagrees with the GAO findings. "We think the data are accurate," he argues.
"We handled 3.5 million queries this year, so the community that it was designed to help is obviously using it," he adds.
Morford says a system is in place to verify the accuracy of reports. The agency sends incoming reports of action taken against a practitioner back to the organization that reported it and to the subject of the report. "That’s generally regarded as a substantial quality-control mechanism," he adds.
In regards to underreporting by hospitals, Morford says the agency is acting on the finding. "We’re trying to establish fact on this matter [of underreporting] one way or the other." As a result, the agency is conducting a nationwide audit of hospitals to ensure the information is being reported accurately and quickly.
(Editor’s note: Physicians may obtain a copy of their own report from the National Practitioner Data Bank for a $10 fee after completing a request form. Forms can be downloaded from the NPDB site: www.npdb-hipdb.com.
For a copy of the GAO report National Practitioner Data Bank: Major Improvements are Needed to Enhance Data Bank’s Reliability, go to the GAO Web site: www.gao.gov/new.items/d01130.pdf.)