The headline at Public Citizen's Web site offers a degree of titillation that was once available only from postcards peddled in a parking lot. It proclaims in bold red letters, "20,125 Questionable Doctors." In smaller type, it qualifies this claim with a quick appeal to authority: "Disciplined by State and Federal Governments."
Another headline offers "National CD-Rom Now Available." Scrolling down, a visitor to the site finds the promise of forbidden fruit:
Information in the federal repository of disciplinary actions by state boards and federal agencies -- the National Practitioner Data Bank -- is kept secret from patients and almost all physicians. It is partially in response to this congressionally mandated secrecy that Health Research Group has established our own publicly-available data bank of doctors who have been disciplined."
Public Citizen's Web site is not the only one offering information about physicians today (Table). A broad range of data providers, from individual state licensing boards to private companies, will give -- or sell -- information about medical school, residency, specialty certification and years of practice.
Forty-one states now post some information on the Internet about disciplinary actions against physicians. In addition, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) offers a search service (DocInfo) through its Web site. Consumers can obtain disciplinary information from state records through the FSMB for a fee of $9.95, payable over the Internet by credit card.
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- a last-minute change in state law that barred the posting of disciplinary records, the Virginia Board of Medicine Practitioner Information Web site received 16,000 hits in its first 36 hours of operation, according to a health department official quoted in The Washington Post. Those records are available on request from the state board of medicine.
"We're projecting 3 million hits this year, which is unbelievable," said Claudette A. Houle, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine, which was the first state medical licensing agency to post disciplinary files on the Web. She told Psychiatric Times, "We're getting national and international interest."
HealthGrades, a private data service that provides ratings on nursing homes, hospitals and hospices, as well as basic information on physicians, dentists and other providers, gets about 100,000 visitors a month to its site, according to Sarah Loughran, senior vice president of HealthGrades Inc.