Limited liability: Should dentists be responsible if a patient gets oral cancer?
Last month, a Texas man sued his dentist for negligence after he was diagnosed with oral cancer following a dental appointment in which he sought treatment for an oral ulcer. The dentist told him to use a special mouthwash and sent him on his way. The patient ended up losing his tongue and his teeth, and is suing for damages including medical expenses, mental anguish, pain, impairment, disfigurement and lost wages. The suit accuses the dentist of “violating the duty of care” and negligence.
Was the dentist negligent? What is his, or any other dentist’s liability in cases like this?
The Oral Cancer Foundation has stated, “[A dentist’s] responsibility is at minimum creating awareness, and being involved in opportunistic discovery of suspect tissue through routine screening of your entire patient population, and referral for second opinion or biopsy when appropriate,” while also conceding, “the average person routinely has conditions existing in their mouths that mimic the appearance of pre-cancerous changes, and very early cancers of the soft tissues. One study determined that the average dentist sees 3-5 patients a day who exhibit soft-tissue abnormalities, the vast majority of which are benign in nature.”
So it’s clear to see that there’s a bit of a gray area here. The OCF also states clearly that a biopsy performed by a specialist is the only 100% effective way to diagnose oral cancer, and recommends waiting two weeks after discovery of the abnormality before taking advanced action, as most such problems resolve themselves within that time. So should every dentist, fearing malpractice suits, rush every patient with a canker sore to a cancer specialist? And if early detection is as paramount as the experts say, why wait the two weeks in the first place?
According to the New York Times, more than 35,000 Americans learned they had oral cancer in 2008 and more than 7,000 died from it. Luckily, there are new technologies that make it easier for dentists to detect oral cancer early, but not all insurance companies cover the cost, nor do all dentists offer them. Even the Times is a bit unsure either way: “… These new tests have set off a debate over cost and effectiveness. Experts are divided on whether they will reduce mortality from oral cancer or simply lead to a wave of expensive and unnecessary biopsies.”
In the end, we may never know how much weight can rest on the shoulders of dentists, but at this point in time, it seems the best defense is still a good offense. This means a dentist should take a proactive role to fulfill their duties, which should include, where necessary, referrals or, as is the preferred method at Calabasas Dental Spa, advanced, cutting-edge technology to beat this menace.
As the world becomes ever more aware that one’s oral health coincides, influences and is affected by one’s overall health, respecting the integrity of our dental needs is more important than ever. For this reason, Calabasas Dental Spa combines a relaxing luxury environment with technologically advanced and biologically-minded techniques to maintain the wellness of your mouth and body alike. Call Calabasas Dental Spa today for a consultation at (818) 880-5520 and be sure to follow me on Twitter!