Dental negligence or malpractice claims are a major concern (and headache) for dental practices all over. Negligence can and will happen, since no matter how meticulous a dentist or hygienist is, he/she will make mistakes. There’s simply too many tasks being done from one hour to the next throughout the day. Worse, demand is high, and many dental healthcare professionals are being forced to work 7 days a week — sometimes up to 12 hours a day to accommodate their patients.

Dentist treating patient

Basics of dental negligence

Whether you’re the professional doing the procedure or a patient receiving, it’s important for each of you to understand what constitutes malpractice and the responsibility the healthcare provider has to the patient.

There are a number of types of treatment a patient may receive, and while there are slight variances in the information required to be given to the patient prior to their consent, here are the basics all dental healthcare professionals need to make sure they adhere to, in order to avoid claims.

Follow all best practices

Malpractice claims will almost always find in favor of the client when you go against dental best practices. This can happen because a dentist or hygienist simply is bad at their job and thus shouldn’t have their license in the first place. They can also happen when you’re trying to do something quickly to get through a long wait list. Something as simple as a rushed cleaning can cause a cavity down the road, or major infection causing oral or sinus infections with long-lasting or permanent health implications.

Do it “by the book” or not at all.

Ask the patient about any questions they have

Answer any and all questions in detail, using as much layman terminology as possible, including providing pamphlets and paperwork to make sure they’re well-informed. Never proceed until they tell you they’re completely satisfied with what you’ve told them.

Inform the client of any risks involved with the procedure

Fillings, extractions, restorations, and even a simple yearly cleaning all come with potentially painful consequences. These side effects need to be detailed to clients — even those you’ve performed those same procedures on before. For instance, extractions might take a week or weeks to heal — the pain can be short-lived and even cause them discomfort indefinitely.

Inform of next steps after procedure

Things like what they need to do and how to do it, medications, special toothpastes, etc. For instance, Ibuprofen is an instant fix for most pain associated with minor and major dental pain. You don’t want a patient brushing an extraction area with stitches in the days following the procedure.

Patients also need to be informed of the importance of bridges on areas where root canals and implants have been placed to prevent future damage (many will decline due to price, but never assume — always inform).

Ask about and point out lifestyle related dental issues

There are many common lifestyle-related dental issues that a trained hygienist or dentist can spot easily such as smoking and heavy, coffee, tea, soda, and sugar consumption. It’s your duty to let the customer know the risks of, and ways to prevent dental woes resulting from these behaviors.

Talk to the patient throughout the entire process

Tell the patient what you’re doing, such as moving from the left side to the right of the mouth, or top to bottom. Ask them if they’re doing okay constantly throughout the procedure, and let them know you can take a break whenever you need them. Make sure they know what level of discomfort or pain they can expect along each step of a process.

Oral cancer

It’s your job to look for, point out, and fully investigate signs of oral cancer. Also, to inform the client of anything out of the ordinary. Don’t leave this job to the client, or hope they’ll see their family doctor, and they may magically see something wrong.

Oral cancer rarely pops up overnight, and if you saw a patient a month ago and another dentist or healthcare professional discovers advanced oral cancer, you’re going to have a malpractice suit on your hands.

Dental patient getting treatment

Dental patients: Are you eligible for a claim?

The first thing to do is to revisit the dentist you think has wronged you, to get their opinion on the issue you have. You don’t need to take their opinion or proposed opinion at face-value (Ie., get a second opinion if they can’t help you). Pain and sensitivity are both very common causes of patient/dentist disputes, and it’s very hard to win a claim based on dental pain or sensitivity alone.

Everyone reacts differently to all dental procedures, and health conditions like diabetes can make a simple extraction extremely painful for months after the procedure. Infections can happen as a result of any dental procedure too. The main questions to ask in considering a negligence claim are

  1. “Did they fully inform you before the procedure and ask for your consent after informing you?”
  2. “Did they ignore your pleas to stop, not stop to answer concerns, or otherwise not communicate throughout the procedure?”
  3. “Did the practice stonewall you at any point with concerns you had after the procedure (Ie., after paying?)”

Most dentists will do everything they can to avoid a claim, by correcting mistakes they may have made, or suggesting ways you can avoid making issues worse. If they send you out the door, or try to charge you extra to fix what you feel is something due to their negligence, get a second opinion. If another dentist points to negligence, call a lawyer experienced in making dental negligence claims, then do what they tell you thereafter, including ceasing to communicate with the dental practice in question.