Dentally Challenged? A Brief Note On Dental Malpractice

Cases of malpractice are being reported more and more in recent times and it seems to have become a global phenomenon. Malpractice relating to just about every field in healthcare services is being heard in larger and larger numbers in the courts. The dental services have not been spared either. The number of dental malpractice suits is increasing but, is that because more people have reason to complain about poor or unsafe practices within the dental healthcare sector, or is it because complaints are coming to the fore much more frequently?

Naturally, the first place to air your complaint is with your dental practice, either to the practice manager or to the senior partner. If the patient feels the matter needs to be taken further, they would be best advised to find a medical negligence lawyer and pursue an action through the courts against the dentist concerned. Complaints and recompense differ greatly, but the law always falls back on the ‘reasonable man’ clause, upheld in the case of Heath v Swift Wings, Inc. 252 S.E.2d 256 (N.C. 1979). This clause is important because, without it being proven, a claim for negligence cannot go ahead. The Law of Tort [in any country] states that ‘a duty of care is a legal obligation……requiring that they adhere to a reasonable standard of care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others.’

Dentists and oral surgeons are professional people, trained to an accepted standard and expected to provide their patients with an appropriate level of care. However, if damage, loss or injury occur who do you turn to? How can you complain and get your grievances heard? In the UK, all dental practitioners have to be registered according to the rules laid down by the British Dental Association, the dental governing body in the UK. Similarly, in the US, the governing body is the General Dental Council. Every developed country in the world will have similar registration requirements. Amongst those requirements is the expectation to treat the patient according to the rules laid down by that governing body.

Denmark has led the way for management of dental malpractice complaints, with a code of practice laid down in 1983. This came about following an agreement with the National Health Insurance Company and with the Danish Dental Association. Denmark has a system of national dental complaints’ boards and county dental complaints’ boards. Between 1983 when the code became practice, and 1987, 533 complaints were handled at county level and 111 appeals were escalated to national level. This equated with 5 complaints for every 100 dentists. Two-thirds of those heard at national level were upheld in favour of the complainant against the dentist concerned.

A study in Riyadh reported the results from evidence they accumulated from examining litigation against dental malpractice over the course of the year of 1997. They noted 32 cases in total, with 20 being clinical and 12 reported as being non-clinical. Focusing on the clinical cases, it was noted that 18.8% of clinical complaints related to oral surgery. Fixed prosthodontics accounted for 15.6%. By far the greatest number of complaints, however, related to errors occurring during treatment – 43.8%. The outcome, in 87.5% of cases was found against the dentist, in favour of the complainant, with 51.5% receiving payments in compensation. The report concluded that more education was needed on behalf of the patients but an increased level of patient care was also appropriate.


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