- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2007

The largest health care database in the country is not yet available to the public. A court order requiring the federal government to turn over information on 40 million patient cases and 700,000 doctors contained in the Medicare database was delayed until Oct. 21.

The government won the delay last week; otherwise, the information would have been available last Friday.

The data include information submitted to the agency that oversees Medicare, the federal health care program for the elderly, by doctors seeking payment for services they have performed. Once that information becomes public, consumers can evaluate the outcomes of those services as well as learn the performance and quality of physicians and other providers who performed them.

“Driven by patient choice, the Medicare database could be the beginning of an important movement in medicine that contributes to higher quality care and lower costs,” said Dr. Richard Miller, a professor at Stanford University Medical Center. “This will likely affect everything from elective procedures for non-serious conditions to complex and dangerous treatments such as open-heart surgery and cancer therapy.”

Due to a government policy that sought to protect doctors’ privacy, the vast Medicare database had been closed off to the public. But last month, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the federal government must turn over the information to Consumers’ Checkbook, a Washington nonprofit. The judge concluded that “a significant public benefit” could be served by releasing the health information. The ruling does not allow patient information or names to be released, only providers.

The government now is deciding whether to appeal the decision and has until Oct. 21 to decide, or the information will be handed over to Consumers’ Checkbook.

The nonprofit compiles ratings of a wide range of service providers and sells the information to individual subscribers. However, Robert Krughoff said his group will make the Medicare data free of charge.

“Our plan is to get the data and create a Web site that would be free to the public so any patient can go to the site and know how many major procedures a doctor has done in the past year, and that would be free,” Mr. Krughoff said.

The database is restricted to doctors who primarily treat Medicare patients, and it will not have information on some doctors, such as pediatricians, who treat children. But most practices treat Medicare patients, so, despite the limits, it is far more robust than any private insurer’s records.

In other news …

Seven of the largest pharmaceutical companies have joined to find out which patients are most at risk from drug side effects.

Called the International Severe Adverse Events Consortium, the project will use genetic data that will tell drug makers of gene variations that make people more susceptible to side effects.

The consortium is a response to the drug safety crisis that started in October 2004, when Vioxx, a drug already on the market and approved by the Food and Drug Administration, was found to cause heart attacks.

The companies include Abbott Laboratories, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Roche, Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis and Wyeth. Academic institutions such as Columbia University are also involved in the project.

c Health Care runs Fridays. Contact Gregory Lopes at 202/636-4892 or glopes@wash ingtontimes.com.

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