Malpractice lawsuits may happen to dentists no matter how careful they are in their practice and procedures. Unfortunately for dental professionals, this risk may be unavoidable, but not unmanageable.
Since not all malpractice issues may be clear cut, prevention may not always be simple. However, a proactive approach to professional liability may help to prevent a suit against your practice.
Explore some common causes of dental malpractice cases and ways to help avoid them in your own practice.
Technical Skill Risks and Managing Known Complications
According to dental malpractice statistics provided by MedPro Group, the majority of allegations against dentists are treatment-related. Technical skill risk factors top the charts of MedPro Group’s Risk Factor Categories with 85% of claim volume.
Technical skill risk factors may include the occurrence of known complications and poor procedural technique. Experience and confidence in your ability to perform a specific procedure, and referrals for procedures you’re less comfortable with, may all help to mitigate technical skill risks.
After a procedure, following up may help you to better understand the patient’s condition and address complications before they escalate. During follow up, consider asking questions that may help assess whether the patient's current condition merits a referral or further treatment to address complications, such as infection or nerve damage. While MedPro Group cites nerve damage as just 10% of top patient injuries in treatment-related cases, they’re on average the most expensive.
You may also want to consider making a note of when you followed up and documenting the conversation, to prepare yourself for any potential litigation with comprehensive, accurate records.
Failure to diagnose or treat time-sensitive conditions, such as periodontal disease, may lead patients to sue for diagnosis-related negligence. While this type of case was cited by MedPro Group as only 6% of major case types, it netted the third highest dollars paid.
Routine X-rays, periodontal probings and diagnostic treatment plans may help to manage the risk of missed diagnosis. Recording the details, such as the date, findings and refusals of treatment, may also help you later in the case of a suit.
Be Transparent, Upfront and Set Realistic Expectations
Following technical skill, the top risk factor categories for a dental malpractice suit were listed as:
- Behavior-related including patient dissatisfaction and non-compliance
- Communication including patient rapport, managing expectations and informed consent
- Administrative billing and collection issues
- Insignificant documentation of clinical findings or rationale for treatment and informed consent
All of the above risk factors may be better navigated with transparent, honest and open policies and procedures in which clear written and verbal communication is prioritized. For example, in addition to signed consent for treatment forms, consider your process for discussing treatment risks, benefits, outcomes and options.
Is it simple enough for patients to understand, yet comprehensive enough to be thorough and informative? Are you documenting this discussion in each patient’s chart? Sticking to or developing a standard format for these conversations may also help you remember what was discussed years later.
The CDA states that thorough informed consent conversations may include:
- Explaining the recommended treatment
- Explaining the associated risks, benefits and complications
- Discussing the likelihood of success
- Reviewing treatment alternatives, options and the consequences of doing nothing
- The sequence of events in the selected treatment
- The discomfort, pain, medications and outcome they should expect following treatment
Keep Your Whole Staff Communicating
Lack of communication may play a role in potentially resolvable problems that evolve into malpractice cases. In fact, communication is cited as a risk factor in 36% of MedPro Group malpractice claims involving multiple factors.
As a practice owner, it may be important to establish customer service standards such as protocols for responding to patients with complaints and a process for helping patients seeking urgent assistance.
Common considerations in dental customer service may include:
- Assessing the situation
- Following a response chain of command
- Preventing the situation from escalating
- Understanding when to take action or make referrals
- Clear, honest and open communication
- Managing expectations
- Conveying and explaining the importance of proper aftercare
Not only may it be imperative to communicate honestly and often with your patients, you may be able to better protect your practice from potential litigation by documenting that communication. Consider exploring ways for your staff to make easy, routine notations of when conversations happen and the topics discussed.
Your Professional Liability Strategy
Dentists may be able to manage their risks of a malpractice lawsuit by using proper techniques, thorough pre-treatment planning, clear communication strategies and referrals as needed, as well as consistent patient assessments and treatment follow up. You should also review the topics discussed here and your professional liability strategy with your attorney.
While these active prevention measures may be a big part of avoiding malpractice suits, even these steps cannot guarantee you won’t be sued by a patient. Working with a trusted advisor to customize an insurance policy may help protect your assets, practice and reputation in the event that you do face a malpractice lawsuit someday.
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Treloar & Heisel, Inc. and its divisions do not offer legal advice. Please consult a professional concerning this topic. The information provided here is for general and informational purposes only and is not comprehensive, nor should it be construed as legal advice.