Another day, another news story spotlighting the problems with physician database information — and the impact those inaccuracies can have on patients. This time, it’s the federal NPI number database that has been revealed as less-than-perfect, as described in this story published last week by the Cincinnati Enquirer/cincinnati.com. The Enquirer’s investigation found that “tens of thousands” (!) of records contain errors.
If you’ve heard me speak on this subject or follow this blog, you won’t be surprised to hear that, surprise surprise, I’m not surprised. Databases are challenging to maintain accurately — it’s much harder than you might think. Errors are easily introduced and, often, hard to detect. Even when the people managing directories work hard to keep them current, it’s still likely that errors will occur. And then when directories depend on other databases and directories for their listing information … well, that’s going to magnify the problem, and make it much easier for an error to be introduced in multiple directories downstream before it’s caught. Once that happens, the errors become the responsibility of people who are unlikely to catch them.
While the Enquirer article points out many reasons the problems it uncovered with the NPI database are bad for patients — all valid and worrisome — these errors are, of course, bad for practices, too. Anything that can lead to a misunderstanding or misinformation that is relied upon by a patient, fellow practitioner, or payer is a potential problem for a practice. And the article also points out that a physician’s NPI number can even be hijacked for fraudulent purposes.
As with so many other issues related to directory data, the accuracy of NPI numbers and their associated information seems like it surely ought to be the responsibility of the people running the database. But many of the problems that can occur in a directory are too difficult for operators to catch with 100% accuracy (or even close) — and the stakes are too high for your practice for you to leave the accuracy of your own information to chance. (According to The Enquirer, in this case, the CMS appears to be throwing up its hands. One of The Enquirer’s sources, EZDoctor, a service that pulls public physician data for patients, said that the CMS declined to take responsibility for the problems it uncovered, instead advising EZDoctor to alert the affected physicians themselves — even though the company had already found as many as 35,000 errors in NY state alone.)
Any place where your practice and its physicians and other providers can be listed is a place where inaccuracies could lurk. These inaccuracies can affect reputations and affect your business. Verifying these important sources shouldn’t be your job, but it’s too important to be left to others who simply can’t do it as well as you can, since it’s your reputation and your business that’s on the line — not theirs.
It’s quite a coincidence, but I just published a new edition of my guide to managing online physician profile information about a week ago. It’s a great time to take action on the items in this guide — it’s an easy-to-use resource that a member of your team can follow to be sure online directories aren’t publishing incorrect information about your practice. NPI numbers are used to verify your identity for several sites you’ll want to verify and update. But even if you’ve already begun work on those physician review site listings, The Enquirer piece makes clear that the CMS’s NPI information should be added to the tickler for regular review.