Why Dentists Can’t Afford to Overlook Patient Health History

Why Dentists Can’t Afford to Overlook Patient Health History

Tuesday, May 24, 2016/Categories: Allied Healthcare Insurance, Healthcare Business Tips, Healthcare News

A Fox Detroit report details the tragic story of a Michigan woman who died after an extensive dental operation.

According to the report, April Walters suffered from a variety of health conditions, including diabetes, sarcoidosis, and asthma. Before her scheduled surgery (which involved 18 teeth being pulled), her heart rate was 130 (the typical resting heart rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute). Her elevated heart rate and health history should have set off alarms for a dentist about to perform such extensive surgery.

Her death is tragic (you can donate to help cover funeral costs here). And it’s a reminder to dentists that dental surgery comes with real risks. You simply can’t afford to overlook a patient’s health history.

To help you get a better handle on your dental liability, we sat down with two lawyers and discussed the following questions:

  1. How does a patient's health history affect a dentist's professional liability risk?
  2. How should a dentist handle a patient who has increased health risks?

How Does a Patient’s Health Affect a Dentist’s Professional Liability Risk?

Peri Berger, associate attorney at the New York firm (@harrisbeach), cautioned that in cases like this, it’s always important to have the facts exactly right.

We can only go off of what has been publicly reported, but Berger said there are some general principles that affect a dentist’s liability with patients who have health risks like those that plagued April Walters:

  1. The “egg shell” plaintiff rule. Berger explained that even if a plaintiff is fragile (like an eggshell), that doesn’t “in any way excuse the individual who harmed her.” If your patients walk through your doors in poor health, that won’t change anything when it comes to your liability.
  2. Negligence / professional liability. For a dentist to be found responsible for a patient’s death or injury, Berger says the patient’s attorneys will need to show that “dentist’s actions (or failures) actually caused the harm.”

In this case, the patient’s lawyers could claim the dentist knew that the patient’s heart rate was high and ignored it, which may be considered negligent. They could also claim the dentist forgot to check the patient’s health history. The dentist’s failure to act might amount to professional negligence (and a dental malpractice lawsuit). 

How Should a Dentist Handle a Patient Who Has Increased Health Risks?

J. Andrew Vines, attorney at Arkansas-based (@JohnsonVinesLaw), explains that dentists will be judged against the so-called “standard of care.” Vines says courts want proof that the patient’s health was “properly considered by the dentist.”

How do courts know whether you “properly considered” a patient’s health? They’ll judge your actions based on what other dentists would have done. In fact, if you’re sued, the opposing side may bring other dentists or dental liability experts to testify about the best practices in this situation.

So how should you approach patients with health risks?

If your patient has serious health concerns, Vines says the dentist should get “informed consent.” Legally, this means you fully explain that the patient has certain health risks and ask the patient to sign an informed consent form, which states they understand the elevated risks and are still willing to undergo the procedure.

3 Takeaways for Dentists

As you look for what you can learn from this heartbreaking news story, keep three things in mind:

  1. It doesn't matter what complicating health risks your patients have – you can still be liable if your actions cause harm.
  2. Follow proper care standards and disclose health risks with an informed consent document to help prevent lawsuits.
  3. Carry dental liability insurance, which can cover the cost of malpractice lawsuits, in case tragedy strikes.

To review dental standards of care, you can always check out the ADA’s resources for ensuring patient safety.


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