Going to the dentist is rarely a pleasant event. It is easy to put off dental check ups out of concern that the dentist will find a cavity, tell you to floss more often, or recommend a root canal. However, when a dentist makes a mistake, it can be a lot more painful than a dental check-up. When a doctor fails to provide proper care, it can result in serious injury or death.
Dentists are real doctors. Dentists can perform surgery and prescribe medication. They are held to a certain standard of care, to provide the level of care of a reasonable dentist under the circumstances. When the dentist deviates from that standard and causes an injury, it could be medical malpractice.
A medical malpractice claim for a dental injury could help you recover medical expenses, lost wages, and money for pain and suffering. If you have questions about filing a medical malpractice claim involving a dentist, talk to an experienced medical malpractice law firm about your case.
Are Dental Errors Considered Medical Malpractice?
Medical malpractice is professional negligence. To show medical malpractice, the patient has to show:
- A doctor-patient relationship
- There was a breach of the standard of care
- The breach caused an injury
- The patient suffered damages or harm
Dentists are medical professionals and are held to a standard of care of other dentists with similar training and education, in the same practice, under similar circumstances. If a dentist makes a mistake or deviates from the standard of care, and causes an injury, then the dentist may be liable for medical malpractice.
Dental errors are considered medical malpractice. Most dental errors are not ever evaluated. A minor dental error may go unnoticed. It is only the most serious dental mistakes that lead to medical malpractice claims. A dental error may include more than just a chipped tooth or an unnecessary filling. Dental errors can cause serious infection, disfigurement, brain damage, or death.
Most dental mistakes do not occur during a standard check-up. Types of dental errors more often involve medical treatments, including root canals, wisdom tooth removal, and oral surgery. Dental medical malpractice claims can involve:
- Dental anesthesia errors
- Surgical errors
- Unnecessary medical procedures
- Diagnostic errors
- Prescription errors
- Plastic surgery malpractice
- Failure to refer emergencies
When most people hear about dental errors, they may not consider them as serious medical errors. However, dental procedures can involve the same essential life functions as a surgery. An anesthesia error could cause a dental patient to go into cardiac arrest. Using surgical equipment that has not been sterilized could cause septic shock. A botched dental implant could lead to physical deformity.
Dental Practice Areas and Dental Errors
There are many types of dentists practicing in different areas of oral health. The most common is a general dentist, who provides treatment for everything from cavities to gum health. A dentist may provide regular teeth cleanings, dental exams, and review x-rays. If the patient requires specialized care, the dentist may refer the patient to a specialist. There are a number of specialized areas of dental health, including:
- Pediatric Dentist: A pediatric dentist or periodontist specializes in dental care for children and adolescents.
- Orthodontist: Orthodontists specialize in teeth alignment, using braces, retainers, wires, and devices to move the jaw and teeth. Loss of teeth from improper braces alignment can make it difficult for the patient to chew food, cause dental problems, and affect the patient’s speech and appearance.
- Periodontist: A periodontist specializes in the treatment of the gums. This includes treating gum disease and other conditions of the gums. The most common reasons for periodontal malpractice involve the misalignment of the jaw and teeth for crown and bridge treatments.
- Endodontist: An endodontist deals with nerves in the mouth. The most common procedure for an endodontist is root canals where there is damage in and around the nerves of a tooth.
- Oral Surgeon: An oral surgeon or oral pathologist treats oral diseases, including surgical procedures of the teeth, mouth, and jaw. Oral surgeons may also work with other medical specialists, including ear, nose, and throat specialists (ENTs).
- Prosthodontist: Prosthodontists provide cosmetic dental care, often after other medical injuries. This includes repairing teeth and jaws as well as dentures, crowns, bridges, and veneers.
- Oral Pathologist: An oral pathologist researches oral diseases. Pathologists study the clinical causes and treatments of oral procedures and may consult with general dentists to diagnose specific oral medical issues.
- Dental Anesthesiologist: An anesthesiologist works with other dental health specialists during surgical treatment, to manage pain and patient health. Many types of oral surgery require dental anesthesia, to put the patient under anesthesia.
The Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) and Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degrees are medical degrees. These are the same type of degrees but different dental schools award different degree names. As a general dentist, a DMD or DDS can prescribe medication or perform surgery.
Assistants and Hygienists
There are a number of dental professions that provide support to a licensed dentist but most of these jobs do not rise to the level of a doctor. Other dental care workers include:
- Dental hygienist
- Dental assistant
- Dental laboratory technician
- Community dental health coordinator
Dental Training and Education
There is extensive education and training required to become a qualified dentist in the U.S. Most education programs require a dental degree with 4 to 6 years of post-graduate training, beyond a traditional 4-year undergraduate degree. Dentists also have to pass a number of tests and exams for licensing.
Prospective dentists take a Dental Admissions Test (DAT) before applying to dental school. The DAT score is used to apply to dental schools, including the grade point average, experience, and letters of recommendation. Most dental schools require a certain number of science-based prerequisites, including biology, chemistry, physical science, and organic chemistry.
Dental school programs are generally divided up into coursework and clinical training. After completing a dental school program and graduating, a prospective dentist has to pass the Dental Licensure Exam. The DLE requirements, testing, and clinical examinations vary by state. Each state maintains their own requirements and licensing for dentists to practice in that state. For a selection of state dental boards, including their websites and licensing information, see below.
Maryland State Board of Dental Examiners
Pennsylvania State Board of Dentistry
Illinois Board of Dentistry
Washington D.C. Dentists
The DC Board of Dentistry
Types of Dental Malpractice Injuries
There are a number of different types of dental malpractice injuries. They can range in severity from minor to life-threatening. A few of the most serious types of dental malpractice injuries include:
- Anesthesia errors
- Dental infection
- Surgical errors
- Diagnostic errors
- Unnecessary dental procedures
- Medication errors
- Cosmetic surgery malpractice
- Failure to refer emergencies
General anesthesia is performed regularly involving dental care in the U.S. The patient is put under with the use of gas or IV drugs. Anesthesia can be dangerous because the wrong amount of anesthetic drugs can cause the patient to stop breathing or stop the heart. It is important for the anesthesiologist to be properly trained and closely monitor the patient. The most common anesthesia-related deaths are caused by overdose and adverse drug interactions. Other anesthesia complications include:
- Intubation errors
- Lack of proper monitoring
- Failing to review the patient’s medical history
- Leaving a patient unattended
- Communication errors
A serious infection can be fatal. Infections are generally more serious of a concern for children, older adults, and anyone with a compromised immune system. In a dental setting, there can be a variety of fungal, bacterial, or viral infections. When the dentist, facility, or employees do not properly clean and sanitize infection, it can lead to a hospital-acquired infection (HAI).
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, a survey of healthcare-associated infections found the most common types of HAIs were:
- Pneumonia: 24.3%
- Surgical-site infection: 24.3%
- Gastrointestinal infection: 19%
- Urinary tract infection: 14.4%
- Primary bloodstream infections: 11.1%
Oral surgery is often an unpleasant experience but can be necessary for patients to fix oral health problems. Surgery can include tooth removal, oral cancer treatment, or root canal surgery. Any surgery involves certain risks, including pain, infection, and risk of death. It is important for patients to have the necessary information about the risks and benefits of surgery before agreeing to treatment. This is known as informed consent.
When an oral surgeon performs a medical procedure, they may be required to provide the patient the necessary information, including:
- Risks of the procedure
- Benefits of treatment
- Possible side effects and complications
- Reasonable alternatives
- Consequences of declining treatment
Failure to get informed consent can be a basis for medical malpractice, especially when the treatment leads to serious injury or disfigurement.
Unnecessary Dental Procedures
A lot of patients are suspicious when a dentist recommends dental procedures. For example, a patient may be told they have a number of cavities that require fillings only to go to another dentist to hear they have no cavities. Why would a dentist recommend unnecessary procedures? Unfortunately, some dentists provide care based on their bottom line. If a dentist has too many patients in good dental health, how can they make money? Unnecessary dental procedures can be a problem for children with Medicare or on state Medicaid.
Dentists can prescribe medication and some doctors issue the wrong drugs, the wrong dosage, or fail to not dangerous drug interactions. Some dentists with a drug problem have even issued prescriptions for patients and used the prescription to supply their own drug habit. Dangerous opioid drug problems can include Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin. If you have any questions about a prescription you received, talk to your doctor or medical professional.
Cosmetic Surgery Malpractice
Some dental procedures are indicated as cosmetic or voluntary treatment. This could include teeth whitening, dental implants, or porcelain veneers. A smile is an important part of someone’s appearance and cosmetic dental errors can cause a lot of distress when it results in physical deformity or emotional problems. Just because a dental procedure was voluntary does not mean that the patient has to live with the dentist’s errors.
Failure to Refer Emergencies
Dentists should know how to perform common medical procedures. However, dentists should also know when they need to call for help. When a patient is having a medical emergency, including breathing problems, heart problems, or other health complications, the dentist should know to call for emergency medical care. Some dentists may try to take care of the problems themselves, which can result in delayed treatment. Delayed treatment can cause further damage and even lead to fatal complications.
Filing a Dental Medical Malpractice Claim
In order to recover damages caused by a medical error, the injury victim has to contact an experienced medical malpractice lawyer to file a lawsuit. A complaint is filed in civil court, laying out the basis for the claim, parties involved, and damages sought. This is filed in court and served to the defendants, generally the dentists and clinics involved.
The injury victim may also have to provide an affidavit of merit or certificate of merit from a dental expert to show there is a basis for the lawsuit based on a deviation from the standard of care. As part of the lawsuit, the plaintiff may have a dental and medical expert provide an expert report and give expert testimony to the jury. Experts help a jury understand how the dentist accused of causing damage deviated from standard practice in treating the patient.
Take Action Against Dental Malpractice
After a dental injury caused by a dentist or oral surgery, the dentist may want to “fix” the mistake, which could lead to further negligent care. Instead of putting yourself back in the hands of a negligent dentist, talk to a lawyer for advice. The dentist may claim they did nothing wrong but they should be stopped from causing further injury to others. Contact experienced trial attorneys who can look at your case, answer your questions, and help you understand your legal options to file a claim against a negligent doctor. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.