Let the patient beware is an adage that may need to be extended to yet another realm of healthcare: dentistry. Kudos to a reporting team in Texas for their recently published investigation, disclosing that dentists all too frequently are involved in procedures in which their patients die and that ineffectual regulators fail to halt dodgy practices and feckless practitioners, some of whom hopscotch across the country with impunity.
The seven-part Dallas Morning News series finds that at least 1,000 dental patients have died in the last five years due to questionable oral healthcare. The report says the numbers may be greater but that regulatory laissez-faire prevents the public from understanding the severity of the issue.
Patients who go to dental practices for issues as minor as tooth decay and as significant as oral surgery all have ended up dead, often after undergoing poorly supervised anesthesia, the paper says.
The stories of patient harm prove even more chilling because those who are supposed to oversee dentists and prevent injury or death show greater concern for protecting practitioners and their reputations and privacy than for public safety. In some instances the Morning News spotlights, dangerous dentists simply packed up and moved to another state, where their credentials and records barely got blinked at before they were allowed to practice anew.
The paper provides an online checklist of ways patients can try to protect themselves and offers an interactive map so consumers can check how their states perform in dental oversight. The bad news for residents of Virginia and Maryland: The News gives the two states an F and offers harrowing incidents that have occurred in both, with little or no regulatory penalty for the dental scofflaws.
Although I join anyone who sees a dentist regularly, as I do, in hoping the profession takes its own steps to clean up its ranks across the nation, I’m not surprised by the powerful and tragic findings of some fine reporting. Back at the start of my career, I worked on an investigative reporting team that found Florida regulators blind to horrific wrongdoing by doctors and impotent in preventing them from doing more damage.
And while improvements occur because of journalistic tenacity, it’s also true that “advances” in practice and technology may make us all more vulnerable: Healthcare providers have access now to a range of powerful anesthetic drugs, and these are administered in a wider variety of settings than ever before, including in specialized centers for procedures including major surgery and colonoscopy; the results aren’t always optimal.
If the public clamor can’t get lawmakers to act, and if professions can’t assist regulators rather than hamstringing them from policing practices, it may require, as it all too often does, the intervention of lawsuits in the civil justice system.