Top Six Causes of Dental Malpractice Suits
Why Dental Malpractice Insurance is a Necessity
1. Failure to Diagnose Cancer in Its Early Stages.
You haven’t seen the patient in a year, but you’ve known him and his family for years, and so, you chat before you begin your exam. All seems to be going well while you examine his mouth and tongue, palpate his neck and jaw, and everything looks fine. But if you haven’t told the patient that you’re doing an oral cancer screening, what you’re looking for and what you’ve found, the cost to you could be a dental malpractice suit down the road.
If you’re communicating well with the patient, he will understand that there were no signs of oral cancer detected during your exam. If, in the future, he is diagnosed with oral cancer, he will, hopefully, look back on the visit and remember your communication with him and he will be less likely to think of assigning blame to you for not making an earlier diagnosis.
Letting the patient know that you are doing an oral cancer screening, telling him what you find and then documenting the results could save you from a future dental malpractice suit.
2. Failure to Obtain Informed Consent or Informed Refusal.
“Just Do It” is a good slogan, but not good enough for a great dentist.
Consent Forms are educational, but they may not be enough to protect you from a dental malpractice suit. Explaining a procedure, performing it and documenting it, is the way to go.
When a patient signs a Refusal Form, the dentist is placed at risk. If a patient refuses radiology, for example, and a pathology exists that the dentist can’t diagnose because of a lack of radiographs, the pathology can worsen over time and result in serious, possibly life-threatening outcomes for the patient.
Explaining this to a patient, and having clear documentation about the outcome of such a discussion, could mean the difference between a successful or unsuccessful dental malpractice suit or, the best outcome, no malpractice suit and a compliant patient.
3. Abandonment of a Patient
Every dentist has had to deal with difficult patients. Keeping lines of communication open can help prevent a scenario where an angry patient doesn’t feel that their complaints are being heard and seeks treatment elsewhere. It is an all-too-common scenario when a patient goes to another dentist, that the patient is told by the new dentist that some work has to be redone, or that the previous work should have been done differently, without consulting the other dentist. Couple that with a bill from the old dentist, and the flames of a dental malpractice suit are ready to be flamed.
Before losing an unhappy patient, every effort should be made to communicate with the patient. It may take a sympathetic staff member to diffuse the situation. Giving the patient some time to sit down with the staff member and dentist, so that the patient feels they are being heard, can go a long way to averting a suit.
4. Failure to Refer to a Specialist
Dentists can’t, and shouldn’t try to, do everything. If you treat a patient for a procedure that most other dentists would have referred, you’ll be held to the same standard of care as the specialist. Even in tough economic times, when it’s often hard to refer a patient to a specialist, it’s more important to work within your comfort level than to wind up in a dental malpractice suit.
Most days, everything goes right. But when a dental procedure goes wrong, the impact on the dentist and the patient can be devastating. Add a dental malpractice suit to the mix and it can become a disaster. Keeping lines of communication open with a patient as soon as they walk into the office can mitigate disaster. Many patients who sue, cite lack of communication with their dentist as the primary reason they brought a suit. A dentist who listens to a patient’s complaints and is willing to do all they can to fix a problem, including re-treatment, rarely winds up in a malpractice suit. “When in doubt, refer it out” is always good to keep in mind.
6. Performing Unnecessary Procedures
A dentist’s understanding of a procedure and a patient’s understanding of a procedure is not always the same. Explaining a preventive procedure to a patient should be done clearly and carefully. Noting “Disc. R B & A,” the shorthand for “discussed the risks, benefits and alternatives,” in a patient’s chart, after a discussion with the patient, can help stave off a dental malpractice suit and also serve as a reminder of the communication that took place with the patient.
Most dentists say that they were blindsided when a malpractice suit was brought against them. Having good dental malpractice insurance in place eases the anxiety that accompanies even a groundless suit.
James Charles Haigh, Ten Ways to Avoid Malpractice Claims, AVVO, www.avo.com.
Dr, Michael Gradeless, Protect Yourself. Dental Economics Magazine, www.dentaleconomics.com.
Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, Refusing Dental Radiographs, RDH Magazine, www.rdhmag.com.
Mitchell J. Gardiner, DMD, Avoiding Malpractice, Inside Dentistry, Vol.2. Issue 9. Nov/Dec 2006.
Odom, JG, Odom, SS, Jolly DE, Informed Consent and the Geriatric Patient. Special Care Dentistry, 1992, Sept-Oct. www.ncbi.nml.gov.
Harry A. Dorian, Jr., Esquire. Avoid Being Sued for Dental Malpractice for Oral/Oropharyngeal Cancer And Increase Your Chances of a Successful Defense Against a Claim. http://www.sixstepscreening.org.
Anne M. Oldenburg, Linda J. Hay, Dental Malpractice: Learning the Rules of the Road. March, 2010. http://www.dentaltown.com.