Poor Response to Patient Concerns Contributes to Dental Claim

This case study examines communication and documentation factors contributing to an allegation of improper performance of a procedure involving extractions. The risk management discussion includes strategies to help dental professionals keep patients safe while mitigating risk.

An adult with unspecified gum and tooth disease presented to the dentist with tooth pain. After a discussion, the patient and the dentist agreed on a treatment plan that consisted of extracting upper teeth and placing an immediate denture. The teeth were extracted without incident.

The following day, the patient returned to the office and complained of severe pain in the upper jaw area. The dentist adjusted the denture and provided pain medication. The patient returned the next day, again complaining of severe pain in the same upper jaw location. Although the patient had not worn the denture since the previous day, the dentist adjusted it again. No x-rays were taken, and the patient was released.

Six days later, the patient presented to a second dentist. The subsequent dentist x-rayed the area and noted that the tip of one tooth remained in an extraction site. He incised the gum and removed the tooth tip. The patient reported that the pain dissipated.

The patient filed a claim of improper performance of a procedure against the original dentist. Defense of the claim was hindered because the dentist was unable to produce documentation of the patient’s concerns, the examination and treatment, and the differential diagnosis on the cause of the continued pain. A licensing board complaint was also filed; the board sanctioned the dentist.

Risk Management Discussion

Poor communication was a significant issue in this case. The original dentist failed to listen to the patient’s repeated concerns and to assess the post-procedure complications correctly.

Communication is not only a key component of successful patient safety initiatives, but it can also be a predictor when determining if a patient will file a malpractice claim. Patients who sense empathy and understanding from their healthcare providers are more likely to adhere to treatment plans and participate in their treatment—and they are more reluctant to file a claim in the event of an adverse or unexpected outcome.

The lack of documentation—also a key factor—rendered the dentist unreliable in his own defense. A well-documented record provides evidence of the dentist’s decision-making process, the treatment provided, and the patient’s response.

The following strategies can help dental professionals improve patient communication skills and dental record documentation:

For guidance and assistance in addressing any patient safety or risk management concerns, contact the Department of Patient Safety and Risk Management at (800) 421-2368 or by email.

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 considering the circumstances of the individual situation and in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction in which the care is rendered.

J00420 09/23