Case Study: Unethical Treatment Leads to Lawsuit and Dental Board Action
A celebrity dentist performed excessive treatment and committed ethical violations.
A 46-year-old male was evaluated by a general dentist, who conducted an examination with x-rays. The dentist determined that two dental surfaces were decayed and one tooth had a possible fracture. Excessive wear to the teeth was not indicated, and pre-treatment photographs revealed good stippling of the gums.
Five days later the patient presented to a celebrated dentist who practiced general dentistry with advanced training in cosmetic procedures. The dentist was widely known through appearances in multiple television commercials, coverage on reputable news channels, and his website. This media exposure created an assumption by the patient that the dentist’s professional qualifications were undeniable.
According to the patient, this publicity was a determining factor for his selection of the celebrated dentist to continue his treatment. During the initial evaluation, the patient complained of a “gummy” smile, as well as chipped and discolored teeth. The dentist performed restorative procedures that resulted in patient fees of $47,000.
A review of the dental record indicated that medical history, initial examination, x-rays, and photographs had been repeated by the celebrated dentist prior to treatment. According to the second assessment, the patient had decay on 45 dental surfaces, tooth fractures on 77 surfaces, and 31 teeth worn down by one-third to one-half. Gingival recession and tetracycline staining were also noted.
Although the diagnosis and treatment plan were vastly different from those of the original dentist, the patient agreed to undergo the procedures. Following the restoration, the patient remained unhappy with his appearance and experienced unrelenting pain. The pain led to gum surgeries, multiple root canals, and significant weight loss. As a result, the patient was ultimately examined by five additional dentists. All of these dentists agreed the procedures performed by the celebrated dentist were below the standard of care. The estimated cost of the examinations by the additional dentists totaled $63,000.
The patient pursued a claim against the celebrated dentist, resulting in an indemnity payment.
A complaint was also issued by the state’s dental board. According to the complaint, the dental record indicated a recommendation of crowns to nine teeth, veneer treatment on 11 teeth, laser treatment on six teeth, a bridge on three teeth, and one implant. Other procedures were also performed, including laser treatments to restore the patient’s smile.
Diagnostic imaging and other pre-treatment photos did not support the need for restorations. Some teeth that had been diagnosed with decay and/or fractures were not treated. There were other accusations of ill-fitting restorations on multiple teeth.
The complaint contained ethical declarations, including that the dentist failed to address the patient’s concerns appropriately when he complained of pain. The dentist incurred charges of unprofessional conduct, excessive treatment, and repeated acts of negligence. The dental board determined that the dentist provided substandard care that was indefensible, unnecessary, and incomplete. The allegations were compounded because it appeared the dentist had rewritten a portion of the chart and that critical evidence had been destroyed. This rendered the dentist unreliable in his own defense.
Risk Management Discussion
According to the American Dental Association’s Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct (ADA Code), “The dental profession holds a position of trust within society.” The celebrity status of the dentist and the media coverage displayed on the dentist’s website indicated to the patient that he could rely on this dentist and trust him more than other dentists. The dentist violated each of the five fundamental principles of the ADA Code: patient autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, justice, and veracity.
The following strategies can help you avoid unethical allegations:
- Provide only tests and treatments that are reasonable and necessary, with documentation to support the necessity of services provided.
- Understand and practice under the ADA Code.
- Research and follow state regulations related to advertising as well as regulations regarding all aspects of a dental practice.
- Exercise caution in advertising to avoid false or misleading claims about treatments, experience, certification, or credentials that might misinform patients about the qualifications of a provider.
- Display your credentials clearly and accurately. General dentists who perform complex prosthodontic or periodontal treatments or practice as experts or specialists may be held to a higher standard of care than general practitioners.
- Do not alter or destroy the patient record. In the event of a claim or litigation, the alteration will likely be perceived as a deliberate act to deceptively reflect care or explain a less than perfect outcome. Altering the patient record may also result in a regulatory agency disciplinary action and create lasting reputational damage. Concealing damaging evidence will render a case indefensible.
Contact the Department of Patient Safety and Risk Management for guidance and assistance in addressing any patient safety or risk management concerns.
By Kim Hathaway, MSN, CPHRM, CPHQ, Patient Safety Risk Manager, Department of Patient Safety and Risk Management
The guidelines suggested here are not rules, do not constitute legal advice, and do not ensure a successful outcome. The ultimate decision regarding the appropriateness of any treatment must be made by each healthcare provider in light of all circumstances prevailing in the individual situation and in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction in which the care is rendered.