In the quest for health and hygiene, people across the United States have access to centers that provide medical services. Services can range from the superficial- regular body checkups to the extreme-need for emergency services after a personal fatality caused by viruses or factors such as accidents. All this help requires highly trained medical professionals, and the law protects the patients against inexperienced and inept practitioners by commissioning malpractice suits against potentially unreliable medical workers. In this paper, the issue of professional liability and malpractice and how it concerns a major facet of medical practice; dentistry, is discussed, from causes and origin to and how dentists in the United States today can deal with malpractice suits.
Malpractice issues and suits emanate from ‘bad’ diagnosis and treatment procedures. Dental malpractice is a term that describes medical malpractice for an injury got from failure to diagnose a potentially hazardous condition, late diagnosis and the very rare if the dentist’s actions to injure the patient are considered intentional. According to the Law Offices of Casey D. Shomo, PA, a patient seeking compensation for a dental malpractice is required to prove that the dentist under investigation, unintentionally, did not follow procedures to treat the plaintiff that any other dentist worth their salt would have considered standard practice; or intentionally carried out treatment that any other dentist wouldn’t have done if they were to be in the same situation. Malpractice as a legal term has very specific connotations, in that it is not gauged on the difference between the patient’s expectations and reality, more so a successful malpractice suit depends on the severity of the aftermath of a dental surgery. (Medical Malpractice Centre, 2017).
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The serious injuries in question are temporary or permanent nerve injuries to the jaw, lips, chin and tongue, numbness in the gums that persists after a long unnatural period, loss of taste and therefore appetite, Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ), which involves jaw pain and restricted normal function such as ability to converse and eat. In the worst case scenario, a simple-looking diagnosis in the dentist’s mind can lead to death caused by improper administration of anesthesia, non-detection of oral cancer or gum disease. Badly conducted root canal, tooth crowns and bridge prostheses also cause serious infections to the teeth and jaws and permanent damage from instances such as perforations of the sinus cavity.
What is the frequency of dental malpractice suits in America today? Research shows that one in seven medical malpractice lawsuits are dental malpractices. This rarity could be comforting to the greater public that most dental hygienists are usually careful with their work. However, most cases usually stem from negligence brought about in tooth extractions (the most common malpractice case brought to courts across the land). Studies show that 25% of all dental malpractice suits involve injuries from the said extractions. The reason behind this is that there are complicated referral protocols that oral surgeons and dentists are usually at loggerheads with patients in case of an injury during extraction. (Watterson, 2017). According to National Practitioner Data Bank, there were about 20,000 lawsuits taken against dentists in the ten-year period between 2002 and 2012. That is on average, 2000 lawsuits against dentists and slightly above 200 against their assistants and hygienists (National Practitioner Data Bank, 2015).
The common denominator in dental lawsuits, as in most lawsuits in other disciplines, is money. CNA HealthPro postulates that more than 80% of all dentist malpractice claims in the United States are about finances, emanating from the medical centers’ proclivity to referring patients to collection agencies which charge much more than the patients expect to pay (CNA HealthPro, 2017). CNA HealthPro clarifies this in a statement saying since the malpractice claim ‘cannot turn back the clock’ and correct an injury that otherwise caused permanent damage, the law permits monetary compensation as a means for the patient to feel ‘whole’ again (CNA HealthPro, 2017).
Preventive measures against dental malpractice suits have been mooted, and the mainstream ones are workplace-based. The ADA Council on Scientific Affairs advises medical practitioners to update medical history frequently, and on each instance the patient appears in the clinic. The council also encourages the use of verbal interviews and the signatures of patients at the end of such interviews; to avoid the potential apathy of most patients to filling health forms and the propensity to omit crucial information when it comes to form-filling.
Although it is the dentist’s prerogative to diagnose tooth infections, it is however wrong to expect them to know of every infection that exists. Therefore, unusual or abnormal anatomical changes to teeth are expected to be thoroughly inspected and documented by hygienists. In this way, evaluation delays from repeated patient visits can be curtailed and proper diagnosis done early.
So, what is the best defense against dental malpractice suits? Dental Practice Acts are statutes developed by legislative bodies, in which specific qualities about the nature of dental hygienists and dentists are documented to cover the whole scope of the practice and the need for the practitioners to know exactly what these laws constitute. The law understands that even with the most compliant of services and the best possible dentists available at any one time, lawsuits can never be avoided. In case of lawsuits, the patient’s record is considered the most important defense item and CNA HealthPro provides the ‘Amnesia Test’ in helping medical professionals document as much information as they can about their patients, in the event that they forget about their patients’ names and likenesses. Since amnesia does not necessarily mean forgetting how to perform diagnosis and treatments, it can protect the dentist in court in that the patient’s record will show whatever treatment they have had and why, and the subsequent treatments lined up.
In conclusion, dental malpractice lawsuits, although few and far between, can cause heavy financial damage to dentists’ practices that exceed income. Dentists have it in their control the ability to provide high quality care that’s better than the patients’ usual expectations, fostering an open communication environment, conclusive and regularly updated patient information and most importantly, upgrading their knowledge base to aid in future diagnosis.
ADA Council on Scientific Affairs (n.d), Infection Control Recommendations For The Dental Office And The Dental Laboratory. ADA Council On Scientific Affairs And ADA Council On Dental Practice , Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/8642147/
CNA HealthPro (2017), Professional Protector Plan For Dentists , Retrieved from http://www.protectorplan.com/dental-risk-management/ce-course-online-self-study/
Medical Malpractice Center, (2017), Dental Malpractice, Retrieved from http://www.malpracticecenter.com/dental-malpractice/
National Practitioner Data Bank, (2015), NDPB Research Statistics , Retrieved from https://www.npdb.hrsa.gov/resources/npdbstats/npdbStatistics.jsp#contentTop
The Law Offices of Casey D. Shomo, PA (2017), Have You Suffered From Dental Malpractice ? Retrieved from https://www.hg.org/article.asp?id=23428
Watterson, D, G, RDH, BS, MBA (2017), Top Reasons Hygienists Are Sued , Retrieved from http://www.rdhmag.com/articles/print/volume-33/issue-11/features/top-reasons-hygienists-are-sued.html