An Unintended Side Effect of Transparency

Stephen Engelberg in ProPublica: “In 2013, ProPublica released Prescriber Checkup, a database that detailed the prescribing habits of hundreds of thousands of doctors across the country.

ProPublica reporters used the data — which reflected prescriptions covered by Medicare’s massive drug program, known as part D — to uncover several important findings. The data showed doctors often prescribed narcotic painkillers and antipsychotic drugs in quantities that could be dangerous for their patients, many of whom were elderly. The reporters also found evidence that some doctors wrote far, far more prescriptions than their peers for expensive brand-name drugs for which there were cheaper generic alternatives. And we found instances of probable fraud that had gone undetected by the government.

The data proved equally useful for others: Doctors themselves turned to Prescriber Checkup to assess how they compared to their peers. Medical plan administrators and hospitals checked it to see whether their doctors were following best practices in treating patients. Law enforcement officials searched the database for leads on fraud and illicit trafficking in pain medications. Patients turned to the data to vet their doctors’ drug choices and compare them with others in their specialties.

Recently, though, we picked up clear signs that some readers are using the data for another purpose: To search for doctors likely to prescribe them some widely abused drugs, many of them opioids.

Like nearly everyone on the web, we use Google Analytics to collect data on our site. So far this year, it appears that perhaps as many as 25 percent of Prescriber Checkup’s page views involve narcotic painkillers, anti-anxiety medications, and amphetamines….(More)”