Illustrations by Richard Watkins / AJC

Fact-checking the data bank system

In an effort to understand why the AJC found so many more doctors accused of sexual misconduct than the only national repository of physician misconduct, the newspaper decided to fact-check some specific cases.

Since the only information available to the public from the data bank doesn’t contain names, the AJC had to rely on the extensive information we had collected on individual doctors to determine if they had been coded as “sexual misconduct.”

We created a program that took what we knew about a physician — such as which states disciplined physicians on which dates — and identified possible matches in the public version of the data bank.

We then examined those physicians individually against the more detailed information in our collections of data and documents to identify a possible match with a high level of confidence.

On those occasions that we published specific disciplinary information about a doctor’s disciplinary record, we did so based on public records and other information that we collected as part of our reporting, not the data bank.

The comparison yielded some surprises:

— A New York pediatrician was sentenced to 30 years in prison for charges including drugging and sexually abusing child patients. But the only physician matching his history in the National Practitioner Data Bank was labeled “other (not classified)” and “no basis code required.”

— A Kentucky doctor  was found guilty in April 2015 of two felony counts of first-degree sexual abuse and four misdemeanor counts of second-degree sexual abuse for acts involving patients. One of the reports on the only physician matching his profile in the data bank is coded as an “Immediate Threat to Health or Safety,” while another says “Violation of Federal or State Statutes, Regulations or Rules.” The other seven say “other (not classified)” or “no basis code required.”

The AJC found more interesting cases in using documents and the data bank to try to learn why hospitals reported so few disciplinary actions each year:

— Three Tennessee hospitals terminated a pediatrician before he was accused of statutory rape of a patient in Alabama in 2009. According to The Associated Press, the Alabama board said that the terminations didn’t turn up in the data bank, and the AJC didn’t spot any such reports for the physician matching his profile.

— A New Mexico ob/gyn accused of, among other things, having sexual relations with one patient while he was supposed to be attending to another patient during childbirth, was placed on a retroactive “temporary leave of absence,” rather than being given a reportable suspension by Lea Regional Medical Center in August 2014. He was later automatically suspended by the hospital when the medical board suspended him. Such automatic suspensions aren’t reportable under state and hospital regulations, according to a hospital spokesperson.

The only physician matching his profile wasn’t coded for “sexual misconduct” in the data bank, either.

Ryon Horne/AJC

Doctors & Sex Abuse: Our Research