Sunshine Week: USA TODAY

Editor’s note: In celebration of Sunshine Week, I’ve asked journalists from around the country to tell me how they use public records in their reporting. 

PETER EISLERinvestigative reporter
BARBARA HANSEN, data journalist

STORY: Thousands of doctors practicing despite errors, misconduct

I did a piece last year with Barbara Hansen, one of our database editors. The story showed that state medical boards allow thousands of physicians to keep practicing despite long records of professional misconduct and malpractice.

Among other things, we found that more than half of all doctors who lose hospital privileges for substandard care are allowed to retain a clean medical license and keep practicing. Similarly, among the 800 or so physicians nationwide who have paid extraordinarily large sums to resolve malpractice claims, just one in five has faced any licensure action.

This is a national story that looks at state medical boards across the country, but the same data and the same sort of analysis could be used to check the record of a specific licensing board in any state.

We did this analysis using the National Practitioner Data Bank Public Use Data File, which is maintained by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. You can download the dataset here: To find detailed info on specific cases, we also used state medical board records, often obtained under FOIA requests, and lots of court records.

The public use file excludes the names of practitioners and any other information that could lead to the identity of individual healthcare providers. Data users are also prohibited from using the data in conjunction with other information in order to identify individuals or entities. But there’s plenty of useful information in this database if your goal is to assess your state’s success in taking bad doctors out of practice.

The public use file contains information on adverse actions taken against licensed health care providers. Adverse actions include medical malpractice payments and adverse licensure, clinical privileges, professional society membership, Drug Enforcement Administration and Medicare and Medicaid exclusion actions. Each practitioner or entity has a unique ID in the database that allows you to identify all actions taken against that person or entity. In addition to the specific adverse action, the data contains variables that provide the malpractice allegation or the basis for the adverse action.


Thanks to Peter Eisler and Barbara Hansen for sharing their story. To get updates on what journalists I’m featuring during Sunshine Week, follow me on Twitter @RecordsGeek. If you are a journalist and would like your public records story featured on this blog, email

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