On average, dental professionals experience smaller malpractice claims than medical doctors and surgeons do. The average claim against a dentist is typically between $12,000 and $15,000. Dentists and orthodontists who perform surgery, offer implant services, or use general anesthesia have a higher degree of risk.
But there are cases where dental professionals are responsible for big judgments. Some examples from the past year include a dentist who didn’t fully investigate a lesion which was later diagnosed as an odontogenic myxoma, or small tumor. The result was a $500,000 verdict for the plaintiff. Failure on the part of a dentist to diagnose a jaw infection from a patient’s phone call also resulted in a suit – the patient’s initial report of pain following installation of a splint for TMJ wasn’t acted on appropriately, and required extensive treatment, jaw reconstruction, and a $2.7 million net verdict.
Hygienists are liable too
Dental hygienists often work as independent contractors, or can be sued separately from the dentist. From small mistakes that lead to the need for additional corrective work, to cases brought against hygienists for missing signs of oral cancer, hygienists are under the same scrutiny as the dentists they work with, and face similar liability issues.
Dental practices should be insured for a number of eventualities. Management of patient records, maintaining complicated and pricey equipment, and overseeing contracts with suppliers of everything from mouthwash to high-tech instruments and dental implants all falls under the purview of the average small to midsized dental practice – that’s a lot to oversee.
As practices grow over time, insurance needs change. Recent updates to HIPPA regulations, conversion to Electronic Health Records (EHRs), and new products and services that dentists can offer have many dentists re-evaluating their current insurance coverages. A short list of the type of insurance a dental practice should have:
Medical malpractice insurance for the corporation and for individuals who work with patients. Also, be sure insurance isn’t location specific if you sometimes practice outside of your office – at a nursing home, or covering for another dentist in his office, for example.
Business and office insurance for your facility, or even for accidents that may occur while one of your employees is en route to the bank to make a deposit for you. Consider any temporary help you may need during a year and make sure there is coverage for them. Consider all of the regular insurance you’ll need to cover medical records if they are ever lost, stolen, mislaid, or destroyed by flood or fire, and think about business interruption coverage due to any kind of small disaster – from a tree that falls and cuts off your electricity for the day to more serious causes of work stoppage.
Employer liability insurance – to help defray the costs of labor lawsuits, sexual harassment, and defamation of character suits.
How to protect your practice
Potentially costly malpractice suits pose the greatest threat to dentists, and avoiding them should be top priority at any practice. The American Dental Association’s Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct offers the industry standard for dentists, outlining the ethics and behavior that should guide any dentists through best practices in communication and interaction with patients, as well as guidelines for how to run their practice. Additionally, the organization offers advice on selecting and maintaining the right kind of insurance, (and offers insurance to its members.)
Establish best practices for employees, and implement procedures that everyone in the office will follow – from the receptionist, to the assistant, the hygienists and dental practitioners. Providing consistent, quality care is the first step in avoiding issues.
Also, consider carefully what to do when problems do arise. Develop a patient-oriented approach to follow-up, and establish clear lines of communication about who in your office should handle medical questions patients might have. Work with peers and professional organizations to find out what the current best practices are, and consider sharing knowledge about employee handbooks and training that can help you establish the right kind of procedures – it’s not easy to run a dental practice, so get as much support as you can.
What kind of coverage do you carry?
Depending on the size of your practice, you may or may not be able to buy all the coverage you need on the open market. Dental liability insurance is unavailable in some states, or is unavailable to certain types of practices, so it may be the case that you can’t purchase the coverage you need on the open market.
To make sure you’ve considered all the options, look into an enterprise risk captive for your practice. This solution could provide you with more coverage or help to lower some of the deductibles you have with your current insurance. Talk with your provider or call us for additional information.