Public Citizen recently released a report revealing that the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) has approximately 50,000 incomplete files. That's a big number - one that's large enough to beg the question: How can healthcare providers accurately screen their physicians?
For those who don't know, the NPDB collects information on medical malpractice whenever problems are reported by hospitals or other healthcare organizations. Groups like state licensing boards and hospitals use the data bank to perform background checks on their potential hires. But now, hospitals might not be getting a complete picture.
The root of the problem lies in reporting errors from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Health and Human Services. To help minimize reporting flaws, Public Citizen recommends implementing the use of a National Provider Identification Number (NPI) so that databases can more accurately organize data on individual physicians.
For medical malpractice attorneys, the NPDB provides additional frustrations, mostly centered around accessibility. Currently, it's incredibly difficult for the attorney of an injured patient to get access to the NPDB. The attorney must be able to present evidence that the hospital failed to accurately screen the practitioner in question. However, any information obtained by the attorney can only be used in lawsuits against the hospital itself, not the doctor. Knowing whether a physician has a history of negative reports would be a huge help to anyone building a malpractice case, but because of confidentiality laws, that information is unaccessible.
Finally, Public Citizen identified several loopholes that also contribute to the NPDB's inaccuracy. For example, if a physician settles a malpractice lawsuit with his own money, the Department of Health does not file a report. Another loophole, known as the corporate shield, prevents reports from being filed in cases where a hospital makes a payment in a lawsuit that doesn't list specific physicians. The same is true of lawsuits where a practitioner is dismissed before the suit has been settled. Unfortunately, these loopholes and incomplete reports mean negligent physicians can keep their reputations clean and continue practicing with impunity. Now, its up to the Department of Health to address these issues and turn the NPDB into the helpful screening tool it has the potential to be.