Appeals court forces New York to release physician database

Tuesday, July 7, 1998

Attorneys representing Newsday and The New York Times were recently awarded access to the New York state Health Department's physician database under the state's Freedom-of-Information Law.

The appellate division of state Supreme Court in Albany rejected Health Department arguments that patient confidentiality would be compromised by releasing the names of physicians.

“This was more valuable than the typical Freedom-of-Information victory,” Adam Liptak, an attorney representing the New York Times Co., said. “What we got here is not a single document but access to an entire database which is much more rewarding and gratifying and gives journalists a real mountain of information to work with.

“We were pleased that the appellant court agreed with us that government records concerning these physicians' professional activities should be available to the public,” Liptak said.

For the last four years, The New York Times and Newsday had requested that the department release the physician-specific information, including data on patients' age, gender, ethnicity, procedures performed on them, how long they were in the facilities, how many physicians a health care center has on staff and many other specifics. The database is routinely released—without information about the doctors involved—to researchers and the media for studies of medical practice.

The newspapers sued the state in 1996 after the Health Department denied their requests and released only portions of the records.

The appeals court, affirming a 1997 decision by a state trial judge, held there was no privacy right that should keep the physician information from public scrutiny.

“We are not persuaded that the additional disclosure of the physician identifier will result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” wrote Justice D. Bruce Crew III in the June 25 ruling.

According to Liptak, the driving force behind the state's unwillingness to release the information was pressure from the New York Medical Society, a professional organization of about 30,000 physicians. The group filed a brief in support of the Health Department, saying doctors and patients have a right of privacy.

“All along in the background, [the Society] was clearly very active,” Liptak said.

In the beginning, Liptak said, arguments against disclosure cited a need to protect the privacy of patients. Department officials “said that they were already giving us some information. More would tip the balance and allow us to find out the identity of individual patients. We thought that was speculative.”

Donald Moy, general counsel for the Society, said that the Health Department by regulation has a data-protection review board that evaluates applications for deniable data.

“The purpose of the data-protection review board is make sure that the information is released only to responsible parties [to decrease the possibilities of] incomplete, unwarranted and misleading conclusions, and to avoid possible infringement of patient confidentiality rights,” he said.

Moy said the Health Department has not decided whether to appeal the ruling.