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A Dentist's Guide On Dental Malpractice

January 10, 2020
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When someone sees their dentist, even if it’s just for the first time, there is some basic amount of trust involved--that you, the licensed professional, has ‘earned’ the license to practice and that you will do everything in your capacity to ensure that the patient’s concern is taken care of. Of course, as a professional, you are bound by duty to take every precaution necessary to ensure that every procedure is completed successfully and that you will be upfront if the kind of help the patient requires is beyond your specialization.

But this is not a perfect world, and as much as we want things to always go as they should. Sometimes, accidents happen. Sometimes, there is an instance of poor judgment or the patient does not provide all the information required for you to make a better decision, even when asked. One of the worst nightmares for a dentist or any dental health professional is to be sued for dental malpractice. Actually, it is a nightmare for both the dental health professional and the complainant or the victim. No dentist would want to go through a lawsuit all because of a ‘simple’ extraction, and no patient would want to go through anything that bad as a result of a dental procedure that it would push him/her to file a complaint against the dental health professional who was trusted to begin with. After all, a lawsuit, whatever type of lawsuit it is, is at the very least a very big inconvenience for everyone involved, not to mention it is also equivalent to lost time and money. And a dentist who is sued for malpractice will most likely lose business as it will take time to clear out a tainted name even if the case is won.

Being a legal term, it best to understand the word malpractice and what it actually means in the eyes of the law. This dentist’s guide to dental malpractice will also talk about a few more details to shed some light on what dental malpractice encompasses, what can be expected from a malpractice claim, and what you can do to prevent being sued for malpractice or protect yourself from the potential financial losses arising from a dental malpractice lawsuit.

What is Dental Malpractice?

Being a legal term, the word malpractice comes with certain qualifications. The common person would equate malpractice to negligence. But when it comes to court proceedings and the law, there are a couple of criteria that need to be present in a situation before any negligent act can be considered malpractice.

First, the treatment provided is below the expected standard expected of dental health professionals. This means, for example, before you prescribe medication to a patient, it is expected that you first find out if your patient is allergic to anything or if your patient is taking any medication that might result in adverse reactions to the medication you’re about to prescribe. Asking a patient if they are hypertensive or perhaps allergic to anesthesia. Second, and very important to remember, is that the treatment provided should also result in serious personal injuries. For example, not asking if your patient has any medical condition before a surgery where the patient ends up having a heart attack. Unless both conditions are met, any lawsuit filed in order to seek compensation based on dental malpractice claims is expected to be dismissed in court.

Although it may be a rare occurrence, dental malpractice still does happen.  It often results from negligence, and sometimes a poor judgment call. Take the dental malpractice case in Colorado in 2017 for instance. It basically began with having to replace an old post for a crown and instead of using a post that would fit into the existing hole, the dentist chose to drill a new hole. To cut the story short, the patient ended up with infection symptoms which resulted in being brought to Denver Health Medical Center. The doctors suspected that she had endocarditis which was an infection of a heart valve lining. She was given very strong antibiotics to address her condition; however, the medicine was also known to have serious side-effects. As a result, the victim now suffers from permanent ear damage which has caused permanent vertigo. Reading is no longer possible; so is driving and practically anything where balance is required. Even with a cane, being steady is a very difficult task. The jury’s verdict? A judgment totaling to $2.2M.

Lesson learned? The best way can be inconvenient, and it may result in less income, but it is never worth the risk. As my doctor said, “First, do no harm.” Doing no harm involves putting the best interests of patients above all else. If it involves losing a couple of hundred dollars or the work has to take a couple of hours longer, or saying ‘no’ to the patient altogether, so be it.

What are the common causes of dental malpractice?

It may be surprising, but one of the most common causes of dental malpractice is tooth extraction. The procedure sounds simple enough, but it is also a very common procedure. Aside from those who really do need to have their teeth extracted, someone who can’t afford a root canal would most likely end up deciding to lose the tooth instead. Supposedly, simple tooth extraction can lead to serious infections, severed nerves, and even fractured jaws among others. And when these lead to worse injuries or even death, someone is surely going to be sued for dental malpractice. Oral surgeries without the proper consent or the patient not having been informed of potential health risks also spell trouble.

Other common reasons for a dental malpractice claim include failed treatments for procedures other than teeth extraction (i.e., root canals, crowns, veneers, and implants), giving incorrect advice or no advice at all when it should have been given, the use of faulty products or devices, and misdiagnosis where the patient claims that the diagnosis was either incorrect, late, or even not made at all.

Dental malpractice from the point-of-view of the victim

Patients who suffer serious injuries arising from the negligence of a dental health practitioner will have to go to a lawyer where they will be asked for details of the procedure to find cause for a valid claim. If the lawyer finds a reason to believe that the injury was caused by inattentiveness or a mistake that could have been easily avoided, then you can expect a dental malpractice lawsuit to be brought forward.

In tremendously unfortunate cases where the negligence leads to the death of the victim, a family member of the victim can file the lawsuit to seek compensation as a survivor--especially in situations where the survivor is financially dependent on the victim.

How to avoid a dental malpractice lawsuit

A dental malpractice lawsuit implies that the victim is saying that as a dental health professional, you provided service that was not at par with what was expected from the education and training you received.

Obviously, the best way to prevent a dental malpractice claim would be to avoid giving your patients any reason to file one against you. Here are some helpful tips:

  1. Always have clear communication with your patients, most especially where treatments and medication are involved. Make sure your patient understands the treatment or procedure you are proposing, what it’s for and any inconveniences (or pain) expected as a result of the treatment. Be very clear about medication--patients can easily get mixed up on the details such as “how much” and “how often”.
  2. Investigate. Ask about your patient’s medical history, allergies and other pertinent information that may have a bearing on which procedure you suggest or the medicine you prescribe.
  3. Be honest and refer if necessary. Even dentists have specializations or some prefer not to do certain procedures. If your patient comes to you with something you are not quite comfortable diagnosing or you feel is outside your field of expertise, then refer them to someone else. They will be thankful.
  4. Be diligent with your records. Make sure to take note of everything that transpires during a patient’s visit and write them down on the patient’s chart--the patient’s complaint, the diagnosis, any examinations or tests done, treatments are done, and medications prescribed. A chart overflowing with too much information is so much better a chart that’s neat and concise but missing even just one important detail.
  5. Never erase any errors on the chart. If you wrote down the wrong dosage, simply cross it out and note that is was a mistake. Any erasures will look suspicious in the event you’ll need to present the patient’s chart in court.
  6. Follow up missed appointments. Whether unintentionally missed or canceled ahead of time, make it a standard procedure to follow up and reschedule. A missed appointment might mean a missed opportunity to diagnose a condition requiring immediate attention. If you followed up to reschedule and the patient still chooses not to show up, then they won’t have you to blame for any issues that may arise in the future.
  7. Ask your patients if they have questions and ask them probing questions to make sure they understand what you just discussed with them. Not all patients are the same. Some will ask you a thousand questions, but some would be too shy.
  8. Open any letter coming from the Dental Board. When a patient’s complaint goes through the Dental Board, which is required to investigate any complaint against a dental health professional, cooperate with them. The easier it is for them to complete their investigation, the sooner you have the peace of mind that the complaint is baseless. And if it is not, then the sooner you can properly address the situation.
  9. If you do receive a letter from the Dental Board about a complaint filed against you, contact your insurance provider as soon as possible. This way, they can recommend legal counsel if necessary, and also be on the alert for a possible claim.

You can never be too careful (and diligent) when you’re dealing with a patient’s life. A dismissed case can still cost you $2000 and judgments can go all the way up to hundreds of thousands (and even millions as in the case previously mentioned). If you don’t already have a Dental Malpractice Insurance, it would be wise to look into it. Also known as the Professional Liability Insurance or the Errors and Omissions Insurance, it protects you and your business from potentially huge financial losses. Aside from helping you find a malpractice lawyer, the coverage includes paying for lawsuit-related expenses such as court fees, defense/lawyer fees, settlement, and judgments.