Dentists don’t call their business a “malpractice.” They call it a practice.
And while practice does make perfect, the practice of dentistry is something that is taken very seriously, and malpractice is an issue that can cause grave problems not just for patients but also for the dentists themselves.
And while a doctor can face any number of lawsuits for negligence in treating all or part of a human body, a dentist is limited to the mouth and throat and yet can be subject to some of the same negligence lawsuits which can become quite pricey and heart-breaking for all involved.
Whether you are a dental practitioner or a patient, it is important to understand the ways that a dentist malpractice or negligence lawsuit may arise. The standard to prove malpractice among dentists is as high as among medical doctors; however there are generally fewer such cases against dentists as against any other medical professional.
The risk is still real, and being aware of the ways that a practitioner may commit malpractice, or the most common ways in which a patient may be harmed by negligence, can be important in helping to control the number of such cases and save dentists, insurers nd patients money and time in getting the right result from a dental visit.
It always pays to get things done right in the first place. Consider this our way of bringing awareness of possible negligence claims so patients and practiioners can work together to ensure that malpractice does not occur. Here are a few of the most common causes for dental malpractice/negligence suits:
The application of anesthesia is almost equal parts science and art. Every body is different, so every body will react differently to anesthesia when applied. However, dentists make a well-formulated estimate of how much to use for any procedure, based on the amount of time the patient needs to be sedated, the type of procedure and the person’s size. Misapplication can happen, and the result can be potentially dangerous. Generally speaking, dentists want to ensure the patient is comfortable while in sedation, but they don’t want to be too conservative with the amount of anesthesia as to risk the patient having a consciousness of pain. But too much anestheis can lead to physical problems. It is such a fine line to prove negligence over caution.
This particular negligence is not just any type of misdiagnosis of a problem; it’s a failure to note a significant problem such as a tumor, cancer or some other periodontal disorder. To miss something like this can be painful and expensive, in that these kinds of disorders require a specialist and special procedures and treatments that a dentist may not always be the best equipped to handle. This is the kind of thing that will often result in dentists taking many precautions, including excessive X-rays and other tests to make sure to eliminate more serious problems and to more easily pinpoint the real source of the problem you’re having as a patient. Several serious problems (like cancers) look like something more minor (like an irritated nerve or gingivitis) at first, so dentists do and should perform whatever tests are necessary to ensure the problem is minor and rule out the major issues. If those cannot be ruled out by tests, then a dental professional owes it to the patient to refer a specialist to know for sure.
- Nerve Injury.
The mouth is full of nerves and nerve endings; this is why we can feel pain at virtually any and every point around our teeth and gums. Working around these nerves is a very precise activity, but there is a risk of nerves being damaged during a procedure, such as a root canal or tooth extraction. If a nerve is not damaged or injured prior to a procedure, but then feels painful and uncomfortable afterward, then there is a chance of some injury. When that injury is not considered reasonable by generally accepted practices of a procedure, a negligence case could be made. Nerves aren’t impacted by most procedures, especially those that originate above the gum line. But if there is some pain in an area where it should not reasonably ex expected, that is where negligence could be considered. When in doubt, consult with a malpractice lawyer to get advice.
- Crowns and Bridges.
The big danger, based on past experience with these kinds of lawsuits, is not in individual bridge or crown work, but in what are called “full-mouth restorations.” When there is a decision to undergo such a procedure and there is a lack of planning (if any planning at all), bridges and crowns won’t align well or be the right size or density or width to help the mouth operate properly and cause discomfort. Usually a full-mouth restoration is not done in one visit, so it is important that you and your dentist make out a plan for how to execute a restoration that will be the most convenient and the least uncomfortable. You can’t plan to not have a plan.
- Tooth Extractions.
Much like some of the horror stories heard about doctors amputating a healthy leg instead of the one riddled with gangrene, the thought of a dentist extracting a perfectly healthy tooth on the opposite side of the mouth as the unhealthy tooth is a fear. Oh, and of course you can’t forget the issue of a fragile tooth coming apart during an extraction and possible nerve trouble or infection resulting from a fragment remaining in the mouth. In these cases, it is good to have the same dentist do the extraction as the one who diagnosed the problem tooth in the first place, and the patient communicating with the dentist to ensure you are both on the same page as to which tooth (teeth) are to be extracted. At least if one person remembers, the chances of a mistake go down dramatically.
- Root Canals.
Root canals are no fun, even when done well. However, for all the dread and headache often associated with root canals, one thing you never want to experience is any irritation or infection afterward. Pain is something that many deal with for a couple of days afterward, but if the pain persists and if there seems to be additional discomfort beyond what may be expected, there may have been a complication, either from the procedure or from the dentist himself. Get a full accounting.
Related to the earlier issue about anesthesia, Novocain is a local anesthetic that is administered in specific doses to account for the area to be anesthesized and the patient. Novocain does wear off on its own, or should, without adverse effects on the patient. However, if too much Novocain is applied, there may be some damage to nerves or to the mouth that may be problematic. This could stem from the drug itself, or from the dentist applying it into the wrong spot in the gums to cause bleeding or damage to nerves. If you end a procedure and you feel numbness longer that what is reasonable, or you feel irritation or pain in the area where the Novocain was applied, that is a sign of a problem that needs to be checked thoroughly.
Dental offices are supposed to be nearly as sterile as a medical operating room, especially rooms where semi-invasive procedures are executed. And like those operating rooms, mistakes may occur where a tool isn’t properly sterilized or a sponge or gauze is left in the mouth too long and an infection develops. Infections in the mouth are not minioor irritants; they can spread to other parts of the mouth or even the brain or body. If you develop an infection, get it checked out quickly and rule out as many sources as possible. The sooner an answer comes, the more quickly the infection can be addressed.
People are not supposed to die from going to the dentist, or be dead coming out of a dentist’s office. But that is not to say it doesn’t happen. The cause of death needs to be known, because while dentist negligence can be in order, it’s possible that a patient may die from a health condition that he or she did not inform the dentist about, and mixing that problem with anesthesia or some other aspect (such as some kind of anemia with a procedure that results in blood loss) that may contribute. Communication is important, and patients should be as honest with their dentists about their health as they are with their dodoctors (if not more so). Dentists have various tools to use based on a person’s overall health, and knowing at least some detail of your condition can help keep the dentist and patient safe through whatever procedure is needed.
This article is not meant in any way to imply that if any of these things happen that it is automatically a sign of dental malpractice or negligence. This is only meant to inform and educate about areas in which negligence has been known to occur and what to watch for. Just because you have a “bad” experience at the dentist is not grounds for a negligence suit; negligence or malpractice stems from a failure to do reasonable and common-standard practice among any of these areas mentioned.
However, if you feel you have been wronged, getting advice from an honest dental malpractice lawyer can help you understand your rights and responsibilities as a patient.