Data Bank on Physicians, Dentists to Start in April


A far-reaching, $15.9-million data bank which tracks malpractice actions and disciplinary proceedings against all doctors and dentists will begin operating in April, federal officials announced Monday. They urged the nation's state licensing boards and 7,000 hospitals to waste no time in consulting the registry.

The National Practitioner Data Bank is intended to help weed out incompetent physicians and dentists, particularly those who move from hospital to hospital or from state to state, keeping one step ahead of authorities.

While actions against doctors and dentists must be reported by several sources, actions against nurses, pharmacists, occupational therapists, dental hygienists and others will be accepted in the computerized repository, according to U.S. Public Health Service officials, who will administer the controversial data bank.

At a press briefing, they disclosed additional details about the program, including the various circumstances under which a health professional's name would be entered into the data bank, which Congress authorized in 1986.

The law requires all insurance companies to report to the registry--as well as to the appropriate state licensing board--any malpractice payments made on behalf of a licensed health practitioner.

Similarly, state licensing boards must report to the data bank any disciplinary proceedings against a doctor or dentist. In addition, professional organizations must report any formal actions taken as a result of a peer-review process.

In turn, hospitals are required to query the registry--at least once every two years--regarding present and prospective personnel on their medical staffs or with clinical privileges.

Furthermore, the registry will accept and disseminate information on all licensed health practitioners, and not just on the nation's 600,000 physicians and 147,000 dentists, according to John Rodak, the project's officer. It will be up to the discretion of hospitals whether to report on nurse anesthetists, pharmacists and other health practitioners, he said.

The registry will not be retroactive, according to Dr. Daniel D. Cowell, acting director of the Health Service's bureau of health professions, which is in charge of creating the data bank. Hence, malpractice actions and disciplinary proceedings completed before April 2 will not be included.

Cowell and his staff have been meeting throughout the country with insurance firms and health care groups to brief them.

He predicted that the registry would begin gathering data quickly.

In 1987, the last year for which final statistics are available, 534 physicians lost their licenses, 644 were placed on probation and 379 had their licenses suspended, he said. In addition, 102 of the nation's major medical malpractice insurers that year handled 73,000 malpractice claims, with 43% of the cases resulting in payments to the plaintiff that ranged from $1 to $2.5 million, Cowell said.

Because of confidentiality considerations, Rodak added, neither the public nor the press will have access to the registry, a situation that has drawn protests from some consumer groups.

Under certain conditions, personal injury attorneys will be allowed access to the data bank. And health practitioners will be permitted to review the registry's data on their own records, allowing them the chance to make corrections if necessary, Rodak said.

Many medical groups have expressed fear about the unwitting disclosure of erroneous information or violations of privacy.

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