Case Study

When Personal Relationships Affect Professional Care

Marc Leffler, DDS, Esq. – October 2021

CASE STUDY BACKGROUND

A 59-year-old woman had been a patient of the same general dentist since she was in her teens, shortly after the dentist started his practice. The dentist had watched this patient grow up, begin her career, raise a family, and now plan her retirement in the next few years. He had attended her family’s functions over many years. When the dentist noticed that his friend had started smoking heavily in her mid-20s, it upset him but he never said anything to her, despite the habit continuing and worsening.

In the dental office, which used only handwritten paper records for clinical notes, the woman completed a health (medical and dental) history form some 40 years prior, and twice after that, approximately 15 and then 30 years after the first. On the two most recent forms, she acknowledged that she smoked cigarettes, but she did not state how much. The dentist did not question her in that regard, or, in fact, with regard to anything in her health history. In reality, she had a 45-pack-year history (1 pack a day for 45 years) by the time the dentist later retired.

Because the woman was the type of patient who tended to present only when something bothered her, there had been no formal treatment plans established for her. She had cleanings every few years, but because of her good home care, she had needed little in the way of interventional dental care: extraction of her two upper third molars in the early days, several fillings, and root canal therapy and a crown for a tooth which broke when a soccer ball hit her face.

About two years before the dentist’s retirement, the patient complained about soreness and roughness on the right lateral border of her tongue, which had bothered her “on and off”. The dentist looked in her mouth and found a red, slightly eroded area on the tongue, adjacent to what he viewed as a rough spot on a multi-surface amalgam restoration he had placed on tooth #31 in the past. The dentist smoothed the restoration and assured the patient that she would feel better after the tongue had some time to heal. There was only one further dental visit, which involved an occlusal adjustment of the aforementioned upper left crown, but the dentist did not ask about or check the tongue.

At the dentist’s retirement party, he suggested that the patient visit the young dentist who had purchased his practice, and she did so just a month later. At that visit, the new dentist took a full mouth series of radiographs, did a tooth-by-tooth assessment, and performed a cancer screening by viewing and palpating all of the tissues, intra- and extra-orally, about which the patient remarked that she had never had such an examination before. The examination revealed the presence of a large eroded and indurated lesion on the right lateral border of the tongue, as well as an enlarged lymph node in the right neck. She was immediately referred to an ENT, who conducted a work-up that diagnosed a squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue; staging protocols determined that she had stage III cancer. She underwent a partial glossectomy with a neck dissection, followed by a course of radiation therapy, but she felt disfigured, embarrassed by her appearance, and had difficulty eating and drinking.

LEGAL ACTION

Despite her many years of friendship with the dentist, the patient sought legal counsel, encouraged by family members. After obtaining the retired dentist’s records, and those of the new dentist and the cancer-treating doctors, the attorney consulted with various dentists and physicians who advised the attorney of their opinions that the malignant lesion was present and diagnosable for years prior to its ultimate diagnosis, when it could have been treated much more conservatively and when the patient’s life expectancy would have been able to be preserved for far longer.

The retired dentist was sued for failing to diagnose the patient’s squamous cell carcinoma, thereby causing her to undergo life altering treatments, negatively affecting her quality of life, and decreasing her life expectancy.

LITIGATION

During the deposition phase, the patient-plaintiff testified, quite sympathetically, about the changes to nearly every aspect of her life, and there was no doubt that a jury would see her as being disfigured. She also discussed how she viewed the dentist-defendant as a friend, almost a family member, and she had placed her trust in him. Questioning about her smoking history made clear how much and for how long she maintained that habit, and she acknowledged knowing that smoking placed her at greater risk for developing cancer and other health problems. She also accepted the fact that she had not been the type of patient to present to the dentist on a regular basis for check-ups and cleanings, but she countered by testifying that she saw and spoke to the dentist regularly outside of the office, and he never put pressure on her to see him more frequently.

The dentist served as a truthful and contrite witness, admitting that he never stressed to his patient-friend the importance of recall visits, and that he had not performed thorough cancer screenings, in large part because the patient generally only came when she had a problem.

Defense counsel obtained the opinions of dental experts who were unable to defend the dentist’s inactions, and oncology experts who concluded that the lesion had been present and identifiable for years before its discovery, when it could have been treated more locally and more conservatively, without impact upon the plaintiff’s longevity. With the dentist’s consent, the case was settled within policy limits. The dentist subsequently attended the wedding of the patient’s daughter.

TAKEAWAYS

It is not uncommon for dentists to have patients in their practices who only visit when they have a problem. That does not excuse the need for the dentist to perform complete radiographic and clinical examinations, to include cancer screenings, and to have their patients update their health histories, at intervals consistent with their own protocols, whenever those patients do present. If patients refuse complete examinations, despite being advised that such refusals may be detrimental to their health, then the dentist should document the interactions well each time they occur. Dentists may wish to consider dismissing repeatedly noncompliant patients from their practices, but that should be done so as not to abandon patients in the midst of treatment, and allowing them adequate time to find a new dentist, with emergency availability provided during that interim period.

It is also not uncommon for longstanding dental patients to become friends of their dentists. While such relationships may better both of their lives socially, they may also provide for a feeling of being uncomfortable when the dentist believes that a serious discussion is needed if the patient does not follow proper home care, does not regularly present for dental visits, does not abide by the dentist’s advice, or does not pay bills. Under the law, it is entirely irrelevant if a patient is a friend, a family member, or was not even charged for care, when considering whether malpractice occurred. It is also a common misconception that patients who are personally close with a dentist will never sue. So, from a risk management perspective, all patients, regardless of status, ought to be treated dentally in the same way, in accordance with the appropriate standards of care. As this case demonstrates, personal and professional relationships can be kept separate.

Dentists may be sued in malpractice both for commission of improper care, i.e. by performing treatment in a negligent fashion, and for omission of proper care, i.e. by failing to diagnose a condition which should have been diagnosed. Either situation has the potential to lead to significant damages claims, with the latter pointing out the need for thoroughness in and frequency of examinations.

At the final visit with the defendant, when the patient presented for an occlusal adjustment subsequent to the dentist previously noting the red eroded area of the tongue and then smoothing out the restoration on tooth #31, looking again at the tongue so as to compare it with what he previously noted — and documenting that — would have shined additional light onto the situation. Whether or not that would have changed the patient’s ultimate treatment or result, it would have demonstrated the dentist’s diligence to a potential jury. It could have also possibly led to an earlier referral to an appropriate specialist, thereby allowing his attorney to comment that the defendant dentist understood the importance of his finding, and that the dentist would have done more detailed examinations, and taken proper steps, if only the patient had presented more regularly and for routine care.

Finally, it is all too frequent that patients become aware of previously undiagnosed conditions, or improprieties in their prior dental care, only when they leave the care of one dentist in favor of another. While the “new” dentist has a clear obligation to inform the patient of what is found upon examination, the way that such information is imparted may mean the difference between the prior dentist being named in a lawsuit or not. Professional communication is a vital risk management tool.


The opinions expressed through this post are the opinions of the individual authors and may not reflect the opinions of MedPro Group or any of its individual employees. This document should not be construed as medical or legal advice. Because the facts applicable to your situation may vary, or the laws applicable in your jurisdiction may differ, please contact your attorney or other professional advisors if you have any questions related to your legal or medical obligations or rights, state or federal laws, contract interpretation, or other legal questions. MedPro Group is the marketing name used to refer to the insurance operations of The Medical Protective Company, Princeton Insurance Company, PLICO, Inc. and MedPro RRG Risk Retention Group. All insurance products are underwritten and administered by these and other Berkshire Hathaway affiliates, including National Fire & Marine Insurance Company. Product availability is based upon business and/or regulatory approval and may differ among companies. © 2021 MedPro Group Inc. All rights reserved.

Malpractice Minute

Dentist Misjudges Bone Height During Implant Placement, Resulting in Damage to the Inferior Alveolar Nerve; Malpractice Lawsuit Follows

Mario Catalano, DDS, MAGD & Marc Leffler, DDS, Esq. – July 2021

Introduction

Every new dentist faces the same dilemma: there is no replacement for experience. As new dentists settle into practice, hopefully they understand their own limitations, as well as the limitations of the techniques and equipment they use in practice. Adopting a conservative approach, especially in one’s early days of practice, may be beneficial.

However, the practice of dentistry is dynamic. The seasoned as well as the new practitioner should not just settle into a certain way of doing things, while ignoring the inevitable changes in the standard of care. As new knowledge and techniques become available, the dentist must consider whether and when it is appropriate to incorporate them into one’s practice. However, that balance between currency and credibility is not always easy to maintain.

Case Discussion
Dr. C maintained a general dental practice that focused heavily on dental implants (both placement and restoration) and the use of lasers to treat various oral conditions. Dr. C had recently hired Dr. K, a recent dental school graduate, as an associate. Because of the practice’s emphasis, Dr. K was sent to several weekend courses on these techniques and Dr. C mentored him as he began practice.

A 51-year-old woman presented to the practice as a new patient, wishing to explore her options regarding her missing tooth number 19. The case was assigned to Dr. K, who began by taking a set of full mouth X-rays and conducting a thorough oral examination. Dr. K’s reading of the X-rays indicated there was 9 mm of bone superior to the inferior alveolar canal (IAC). Choosing to be cautious, Dr. K suggested to the patient the options of either an 8 mm implant or a traditional 3-unit bridge. Following a thorough discussion of the recognized risks and expected benefits of each option, the patient opted for the implant. Because this was a single, apparently uncomplicated implant case, Dr. C decided Dr. K should handle it.

On the day of surgery, the patient signed an appropriate informed consent form that reiterated the risks and benefits previously discussed, including the possibility of inferior alveolar nerve (IAN) paresthesia. Dr. K also assured the patient that the 1 mm margin allowed for between the implant depth and the IAN canal should provide a “safety zone” to account for any discrepancies between the X-ray and the actual bony structure.

After the induction of local anesthesia, Dr. K began the series of sequential osteotomies for implant placement. During this process, Dr. K suddenly felt a decrease in resistance to the drilling, which he attributed to poor bone quality. He proceeded with the preparation and completed the implant placement.

He then reviewed the case with Dr. C, including the lack of resistance he thought he felt. Dr. C suggested a postsurgical X-ray, which indicated that the implant had invaded the IAN canal. This finding explained the lack of resistance.

The patient was informed of what had transpired, and the implant was immediately removed and bone graft material was placed at the osteotomy site. Dr. K explained that the IAN would likely be numb for a period of time. He also recommended to commence treatment of the nerve with low level laser therapy (LLLT) to stimulate healing and restore function (LLLT is not Food and Drug Administration [FDA]-approved for this application). The patient consented, and LLLT treatment was commenced that day.

Dr. K followed the patient closely over the next 18 months, providing approximately 30 LLLT treatments and documenting his subjective assessment of slight improvement after each treatment. However, Dr. K never conducted any nerve mapping or other objective measurement of nerve function.

Eventually, the patient became dissatisfied with her progress and sought a second opinion from an oral and maxillofacial surgeon (OMS). The surgeon indicated that the therapeutic window had passed and little could be done to improve her current condition. She also noted that X-rays showed bone fragments close to the IAN.

The patient sued both dentists charging that they had prepared for the original procedure improperly (by failing to take a cone-beam computed tomography [CBCT]), performed the procedure improperly (by using an implant too long), and failed to appropriately refer her to an OMS or neurologist in a timely manner, thereby preventing her benefiting from prompt remedial treatment.

Several potential defense experts reviewed the case for the doctors’ insurance carrier; however, none of them could support the care. Additionally, the expert reviews of this case questioned the appropriateness of the immediate bone grafting after the implant was removed. The case against both doctors was settled by a payment to the patient.

Risk Management Considerations

Theodore Passineau, JD, HRM, RPLU, CPHRM, FASHRM

This case provides an opportunity to discuss the dynamic nature of the practice of dentistry from two perspectives: the evolution of currently performed procedures and the introduction of new therapeutic modalities.

The limitations of radiographs have long been recognized. As CBCT has become more available and less expensive, its use as part of the implant placement process has become more widely accepted, especially when placement will be near the IAN or maxillary sinus. When the use of CBCT becomes the standard of care is difficult to say, but the dentist needs to consider it in all appropriate cases.

The use of any unapproved therapy also requires careful consideration. While the off-label use of medications or the use of not-yet-FDA-approved implants is (in some cases) within the standard of care in medicine, when it is done, the patient must be very thoroughly counseled and informed that the therapy is not approved by FDA. This advisement is accomplished through the informed consent process.

Whatever treatment is rendered, the dentist (however long he or she has been practicing) must be fully competent to perform the procedure and manage any reasonably anticipated complications. A savvy dentist knows and accepts her or his limitations. If the case starts to “go off the rail,” an early referral to someone with appropriate expertise is likely to inure to the patient’s benefit, and hopefully will minimize the referring dentist’s potential professional liability exposure. Along the way, all dentists participating in a patient’s care should take occasional “timeouts” to assess whether the case is progressing as it should.

Informed consent to treatment was not an issue in this case; however, it is important to understand what informed consent is and isn’t. Informed consent is when the patient is educated about the recognized risks, expected benefits, and reasonable alternatives to the proposed treatment so that he or she can make an informed decision about whether to proceed with treatment. In consenting, patients are assuming the risks that have been explained to them; however, they are never consenting to care below the standard of care.

Summary Suggestions
The following suggestions may be useful when providing higher risk or unconventional dental treatment:

  • Clinical competency is a must. If the dentist is not completely familiar with the condition, its treatment, and the possible complications, he or she should promptly refer the case to a provider with more specific expertise to address treatment needs or complications.
  • Clinical competency is not a static state. Dentists must devote sufficient time and attention to completing continuing dental education (CDE) and other information that will keep them current with the state of practice.
  • If an experimental or unapproved treatment is proposed, the dentist must clearly explain the experimental or unproven nature of the procedure to the patient as part of the informed consent process.

Conclusion
Because of ongoing research and development, the accuracy, efficiency, and efficacy of dentistry has never been at a higher level. However, it remains an inexact science. New potential or actual risks may emerge with every new product or technique. So, dentists should continually increase their knowledge, skill, and attention to detail in response to new developments.

Legal Case

The Injuries That Weren’t

Rawle & Henderson LLP, Marc R. Leffler, Esq., Partner,  William S. Spiegel, Esq., Partner

In order to prove a case in dental malpractice, a plaintiff must demonstrate that there was negligence on the part of the dentist which directly caused, or was at least a substantial factor in causing, an injury or injuries. If any of those components is missing, the claim cannot stand; in other words, if there is no improper treatment, or if there are no demonstrable injuries, or if there is no connection between the treatment and the injuries, the dentist will be successful in defense.

Facts
A 45-year-old woman had been having pain associated with her lower right third molar (#32) for nearly a week; she had previously experienced the same problem over the years, but the pain resolved after a few days after an uptick in her oral hygiene. But this time was different. So, she went to her dentist, Dr. A, to complain, leading to a panoramic radiograph which showed the tooth to be partially impacted with a distal bony defect present on tooth #31, which was confirmed on clinical examination. Dr. A believed that extraction was the best treatment, given the history and the patient’s age; the patient was so uncomfortable that she was happy to hear that proposed solution.

Dr. A had spent several years working in hospitals, so he was well experienced with extractions of this type, and extractions became a regular part of his private practice. What was clear radiographically was the proximity of the root apices to the inferior alveolar canal, so the dentist carefully explained the potential for temporary, or even permanent, loss or alteration of feeling to the areas innervated by the inferior alveolar nerve. The patient was then presented with a detailed informed consent form, which she signed and dated before any aspect of treatment began. Later on, the patient acknowledged having been fully advised of all risks associated with the procedure, as well as viable options, so her initial case claim of lack of informed consent was dismissed by the court early on.

Under local anesthesia, tooth #32 was surgically extracted, seemingly without complication. During the 20-minute procedure, a bite block was placed on the contralateral occlusal surfaces to keep the masticatory muscles comfortable and to reduce the chance of TMJ injury. A silk suture was placed, post-extraction instructions were provided (including that she should refrain from smoking), and a prescription for analgesics was given.

On the second post-operative day, the patient experienced an increase in pain, so she called the dentist’s office; she was asked to come in to be checked, and she did so that afternoon. When Dr. A checked the area, he found a dry socket. So, he asked the patient whether she had been smoking, and she admitted to having done so. The dentist gently debrided the socket, packed the area with dry socket dressing, reiterated the warning against smoking, and told the patient that she should return for dressing changes at least every other day. The patient made no other complaints related to her mouth at that visit.

The patient returned quite often for dressing changes, still making no other complaints; her suture was removed one week after the extraction. During the first month, she presented to the office 12 times for dressing changes. At one of those visits, the dentist took an x-ray, which showed a clean site. At 35 days following the extraction, the patient complained, for the first time, that her lower right lip and chin were numb; she stated that the numbness had been that way since the day of extraction. When asked why she had not said anything about that before, she responded that the pain from the dry socket had been so bad that she simply complained of the most significant thing. Dr. A gently used a sharp explorer to try to determine whether there was any painful response, but the patient stated that she felt nothing on her lower right lip and chin areas when poked with the explorer. The dentist wanted to follow that situation, so he had the patient return for continuing dry socket dressing changes, and after that resolved, once a month. He told the patient that, if she did not have a return of feeling by 6 months after the extraction, she would be referred to an oral surgeon.

At nearly 3 months post-op, she made a new complaint: she was experiencing left side TMJ pain (which she attributed to the bite block used at surgery) which was ongoing since the time of the extraction, and which was making it difficult for her to chew. The dentist thought that it was best that she be sent to an oral surgeon at this point, to address the complaints of both numbness and joint pain. The patient became upset that she was being referred elsewhere, asking why Dr. A would do surgery if he was not able to handle post-surgery problems on his own. The dentist explained that he felt comfortable managing post-surgery problems, but when two arose at once, it would be better to have a specialist involved.

The patient never returned to Dr. A, and she ignored voicemails from his office asking whether she had gone to see an oral surgeon.

Legal Stance
The patient became a plaintiff when the attorney she retained filed a dental malpractice action on her behalf: the suit alleged an improperly performed extraction during which the inferior alveolar nerve was not protected, improper use of a bite block, and the failure to obtain informed consent. These issues of malpractice were claimed to have caused permanent injury to the right inferior alveolar nerve (IAN) and damage to the left TMJ complex. (As is noted above, the informed consent claim dropped out of the case.)

Issues Raised
As we commonly see in cases claiming paresthesia due to extractions, the method of extraction is of paramount importance because a properly performed extraction which led to nerve injury is normally not an adequate foundation for a successful dental malpractice case. A less common claim was raised here, that being that it was improper to place a bite block during the extraction, so as to cause a joint injury.

Discovery
In the state where this suit was brought, there is broad discovery permitted by the courts, meaning that attorneys for both the plaintiff and the defendant dentist are allowed to delve into any issue(s) that might at least reasonably lead to relevant evidence. What this practically results in are the (1) depositions of the plaintiff and defendant, as well as of key non-expert witnesses who can likely shed light on important issues of the case; (2) a physical examination of the plaintiff by a doctor of defense counsel’s choosing, which is limited to the damages claims; and (3) access to a generally wide array of the plaintiff’s dental and medical records, so long as defense counsel can demonstrate to the court that the records sought are not merely for a fishing expedition, but rather for an exploration of what the plaintiff might have reported — or not reported — to her seemingly unrelated medical providers.

Here, the plaintiff’s deposition was not overly helpful in areas beyond the usual inquiry into the plaintiff’s background and her version of the treatment timeline, including interactions with the defendant and others.

However, we had an oral surgeon who was familiar with issues relating to the TMJ and to nerve injuries examine the plaintiff. When challenged with various stimuli to the areas innervated by the IAN, she claimed that she could not feel the right side, but she could feel the left side; of course, this is subjective, so patient truthfulness is an important component of this type of examination (which is why we sometimes forego such examinations in claimed nerve injury cases, based upon how we view the plaintiff’s veracity). Regarding the claim of left-sided TMJ pain, she told our examining oral surgeon, and acted as such when asked to perform opening and lateral movements, that she could only open vertically to 25 mm when asked how wide she could open, but when the oral surgeon asked her (off-the-cuff, so to speak) to open so that he could view the back of the extraction site with a mouth mirror, she opened 45 mm without even a hint of discomfort. More importantly, regarding the left-sided TMJ pain, she claimed to be unable to move laterally, at all, to the left, but freely moved toward the right without any restriction. The written report of this examination was shared with counsel for the plaintiff, as is required.

What the plaintiff did not know is that, due to the functions and pulls of the lateral pterygoid muscles, patients are able to freely move toward the injured side, and prevented from moving to the opposite direction of injured TMJs. Without anyone intentionally setting it, the plaintiff fell into an anatomic trap, proving her to be untruthful regarding her TMJ claim, which immediately raised our awareness that, perhaps, she was also being untruthful about the nerve injury claim.

The plaintiff was a patient who saw doctors quite frequently, so the volume of medical records to be reviewed was enormous. However, we recognized that they could contain very valuable information. Roughly 18 months after the extraction at issue, the plaintiff saw her primary physician for a routine physical and blood studies: therein, her liver function tests were grossly abnormal, so her physician referred her to a hematologist for a work-up, and she went.

Luckily for us, and in conformity with good medical care, the hematologist obtained a complete medical history and conducted a thorough physical exam. In the history, within the section entitled “neurological”, the hematologist noted the history from the plaintiff, which included her statement of “no areas of numbness or altered sensation.” As helpful as that, alone, would have been for our case, during the physical exam, the hematologist conducted a neurological exam, in which it was noted “CNs (cranial nerves) II-XII intact.” Given that the IAN is within the third division of CN V, we knew, from a totally unrelated but authoritative source, that no nerve was injured, at least as of then.

Subsequently, and pursuant to a HIPAA authorization, we spoke with the hematologist. We explained the plaintiff’s claim in the suit and asked whether the notes of the history and physical were accurate. The hematologist responded to the effect of, “I never enter a patient chart note that is not complete and accurate. I see almost every patient with either a medical student or resident also present, so complete history taking, thorough examinations, and accurate chart entries are absolutes.” We made plans to have the hematologist testify at trial, if needed.

Trial
In the lead-up to trial, we explained to the plaintiff’s attorney that we strongly believed that the claimed injuries did not exist. The attorney did not accept our assessment, maintained a settlement demand value which we viewed as exorbitant, and wished to proceed to trial.

At trial, our client testified regarding his professional credentials, including his practice background, and the facts specific to this plaintiff. A key area of questioning against him, which was effective, focused on the concepts that oral surgeons are specifically trained to remove impacted teeth. As compared with general dentists such as he was, they are more familiar with handling complications (which the dentist clearly agreed with, as he had ultimately referred the plaintiff to an oral surgeon after two problems emerged), and despite his experience doing oral surgery, an oral surgeon with more experience might have taken different approaches and precautions to decrease the likelihood of complications. In all candor, plaintiff’s counsel seemed to have impressed the jury on the negligence aspect of the claim.

However, things turned around starkly during the cross-examination of the plaintiff’s expert witness. That expert acknowledged the anatomic and physiologic incongruities associated with the plaintiff’s claimed limitations and abilities relating to her TMJ and its muscular attachments, and essentially admitted that the plaintiff could not have been truthful when reporting her TMJ symptoms. It became even worse for the plaintiff when the expert was confronted with the hematologist’s records, which he had never previously reviewed, and was forced to admit that this unbiased, unrelated practitioner had essentially debunked the plaintiff’s claimed permanent nerve injury, based upon a history from the plaintiff and an examination which took place well after the subject extraction.

The jury quickly returned a verdict in favor of the dentist. One of the jurors, who was interviewed after, said that they completely disbelieved everything about the plaintiff’s claim once her own expert was painted into a corner.

Takeaways
For a plaintiff to win a dental malpractice case, every element of the claim must be met. So, an injury caused by proper treatment will lead to results in favor of the dentist. Of course, the true facts may not always appear from the start, so a deep dive into every aspect of litigation investigation must be undertaken in all cases, not only by the attorneys, but by the expert witnesses as well, because they are the witnesses who are usually the most critical to juries.

Very important from a risk management standpoint is the concept to always practice within your own abilities. Especially in office settings when young employee dentists are pushed to produce, but also in situations where such pressures are not externally placed, we often see litigation arising after dentists perform procedures for which they are not adequately trained, for which they have limited experience, or which they are trying to do as “a favor.”

The opinions expressed through this post are the opinions of the individual authors and may not reflect the opinions of MedPro Group or any of its individual employees. This document should not be construed as medical or legal advice. Because the facts applicable to your situation may vary, or the laws applicable in your jurisdiction may differ, please contact your attorney or other professional advisors if you have any questions related to your legal or medical obligations or rights, state or federal laws, contract interpretation, or other legal questions.