Complaints About Dental Care

Robert S. Baratz, M.D., D.D.S., Ph.D.

Consumer complaints about dental care occur fairly often. Some result from misunderstandings about services or fees, Others have to do with poor outcomes. Still others may be due to improper treatment. In most cases, the best first step is to discuss your concerns with the dentist. If that fails, it is possible to complain to a dental society, the state licensing board, or a suitable attorney.

Dental Societies

Dental societies include local, regional, and state professional organizations that are controlled by and exist primarily to promote the interests of their members. Those interests include fostering professionalism; sponsoring continuing education; promoting or opposing legislation; self-regulation of member behavior; and promoting the profession. Dental societies cannot act as a group to control or set fees; however they can investigate fee disputes with consumers and negotiate reimbursement rates with insurance companies.

State licensing boards generally are not equipped to handle large volumes of fee disputes or complaints about poor outcomes. Moreover, they often don't necessarily fall within their scope. Should you have a complaint about fees or services, it is best to file it with the state or local dental society. These groups usually have a peer review committee that can evaluate and mediate disputes. Such committees can look at the facts, interview the parties, evaluate the situation, and make a recommendation that may help to resolve such disputes.

Dental societies are familiar with fees and can judge whether a charges are reasonable. They may act in an advisory capacity or offer to arbitrate with both the patient and dentist agreeing in advance to accept the decision.

Dental societies want consumers to be treated fairly to keep the image and standards of the profession high. Their peer-review groups perform a valuable public service by acting as an outside, but skilled source of opinion. They can explain to the consumer why a situation should be approached in a particular way, and why a fee is fair and reasonable. Similarly, they can inform a dentist that he/she is unreasonable or inappropriate. Most consumers who have dealt with a peer-review committees or had a dispute arbitrated feel that the outcome is fair and appropriate.

If peer review fails, and/or a consumer feels that care was beyond the standards of the profession, a complaint should be filed with the licensing board. If the society review committee finds evidence of malpractice, the committee can complain to the state licensing board or instruct the consumer to do so.

Licensing Boards

Licensing Boards are charged with maintaining high standards in the professions. However, it is not possible for a board to review the activities of each practitioner regularly. In most states, the boards are prohibited from investigating a practitioner unless a written complaint has been received. Copies of most state dental practice acts are posted on the Internet, the rest may be obtainable from a local library.

When a complaint is made, the board is usually required to open an investigation. The scope of the investigation would depend on the allegations. The investigation must be conducted according to the rules specified in the state's dental practice act.

If an investigation results of charges of professional misconduct, there is typically a trial before either a review committee or an administrative law judge, depending on the particular state laws. The professional under question has rights, and the trial is a formal procedure, with rules of evidence, witnesses, and so on.

If charges against a practitioner are sustained, the practitioner can be sanctioned by the licensing board. Sanctions can include suspension, temporary suspension, limitation of practice, supervision of practice, and revocation of license. Other orders can include restitution of fees, fines, and required additional education.

How to Complain

Complaints should be clear and concise. Every fact need not be put into the initial letter, and it is best to avoid strong emotion or recommendations. The complaint should specify the facts (who, why, when, where, and what), request an investigation, and, if possible, point out specific violations of the dental practice act. Include information on how and when you can be reached if additional information is needed.

It is advisable to keep a record that the complaint was filed, so send it by certified mail. Boards may receive many complaints over a period of time and must investigate each. It may take some time before your complaint is addressed. Boards are not in the business of dispute resolution, so do not expect them to "get your money back," Peer-review committees are the proper forum for this activity. Boards exist to enforce their own regulations. Ultimately, all they might be able to do is remove someone's license to practice or sanction the practitioner in other ways.

Malpractice Litigation

If you believe that you suffered quantifiable damages as a result of negligence by a dentist, you may have grounds for a malpractice lawsuit. The best person to consult is an attorney who specializes in personal liability cases, and particularly in dental malpractice. The attorney can evaluate your claim and see whether you have a valid case against the practitioner.

Because the damages in dental malpractice cases tend to be relatively "small" and the cost of a trial may exceed potential payments from a successful lawsuit, attorneys will often advise settlement or peer review. Some cases, however, do involve substantial damages. .

Note that any lawsuit must be brought within a period of time set by state law. This time period, which is called the "statute of limitations," can be as short as one year after treatment ends. A local attorney can advise on the length of these time periods. Thus, if you feel that a lawsuit may be appropriate, you should not delay discussion with an attorney even if you have complained elsewhere.

For Additional Information

This page was revised on July 24, 2002.

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