Why does U.S. law often work to protect dentists rather than patients?
No parents should have to suffer the tragedy recently endured by a California couple. Tim and Eliza Sears lost their beloved kindergartener, Caleb, during an uncomplicated dental procedure. In addition to suing the oral surgeon involved, Dr. Doucet, for malpractice, they are seeking to get a new law through the California Legislature that will prevent other families from going through the same misery.
Why was Caleb at greater risk in the dentist’s chair than in a hospital setting?
The facts of the case are these: soon after Doucet administered anesthesia for the extraction of a tooth that was growing in the roof of Caleb’s mouth, the boy stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest. The lawsuit brought by the Sears charges that Doucet’s “response and actions during this emergency incident were inadequate and constituted incompetence, gross negligence and repeated acts of negligence.” Doucet denies the accusation and claims his due process rights were violated.
Since Caleb’s death, the Sears have learned that oral surgeons are the only medical professionals allowed to both administer anesthesia and perform surgery. In all other hospital procedures, these duties are separated. It is their belief that if an anesthesiologist been present during Caleb’s oral surgery, their son might well have survived.
The California Dental Association Lobby Pushes Back
To their dismay, the Sears have found that the dental lobby, not only in California, but throughout much of the United States, is surprisingly powerful. The California Dental Association’s lobby, for example, spent more that the pharmaceutical industry trade group or the association for Hollywood movie studios on its attempts to influence legislation to help dentists maintain control.
What the Sears are Seeking through New Legislation
While the Sears admit that that the advantages of general anesthesia in terms of reducing the child’s emotional trauma were discussed with them prior to his surgery, Tim Sears states emphatically that “… we had no clue that the method … would be different than it would be in any other medical setting. And that’s what we’re trying to push for — for parents to be given that information.”
Even though the executive officer of the state’s Dental Board, the organization responsible for disciplinary actions, accused Dr. Doucet in February of “gross negligence” in Caleb’s treatment, Doucet is allowed to continue practicing while the case to revoke his license is pending. Equally alarming is that, while dealing with the awful reality of their son’s death, the Sears family has been unable to find out how many other children have died during dental anesthesia because of a lack of preserved reliable data.
When they asked their assemblyman for a bill to require that two providers of medical care be present during oral surgery — one to perform the procedure and one to monitor administration of anesthesia, the dental lobby pushed back, arguing that such a measure would be prohibitively expensive.
As a compromise, the assemblyman drafted a bill to require notifying parents before their children’s oral surgeries that the risk of death is greater when a dentist both administers anesthesia and performs surgery. This modest proposal was also opposed by lobbyists for dentists and oral surgeons, who claim that there is “no evidence that dental anesthesia under this [current] model of care carries a greater risk than dental care with a second anesthesiologist present.”
Hopefully, you will never face as devastating a situation at that faced by the Sears. Nonetheless, if you are faced with any type of dental malpractice issue, you should contact an attorney who is not only highly competent and well-reputed, but who has extensive experience in dental malpractice cases.