Discussing Other Dentists’ Work with Patients

Well, this can be awkward.

A new patient comes to your office for a comprehensive exam. You notice a few open margins on some crowns and a short fill on a root canal. What do you say to the patient? Should you throw the other dentist under the bus?

Speaking ill of another dentist’s work can have repercussions if we’re not careful:

(1) Misrepresenting the quality of work is a violation of the ADA’s Principles of Ethics and Code of Conduct. It’s unethical to state that a procedure must be redone if was originally done to the standard of care.
(2) Beginning a relationship with a patient based on negativity is never a good idea. Not only can it speak poorly about your character but it sets the bar very high for your work. If you make yourself seem like a superhero, you’re going to have to deliver on that promise.

So if a procedure was done to the standard of care, it’s a bad idea to start complaining about all the reasons that it isn’t perfect. If the work is adequate and the patient has no functional or cosmetic complaints, then we should keep our picky opinions to ourselves.

The other dentist may have had a bad day or perhaps they just aren’t as technically proficient as you are. Another possible explanation is the patient factor. As the old expression goes: “Never judge another dentist’s work until you’ve worked in that patient’s mouth.” We have all had patients who are challenging to manage when they get in the chair and we can’t expect to do our best possible work.

An open margin on the distal of # 18.  Quick!  Everybody grab their pitchforks!

An open margin on the distal of # 18. Quick! Everybody grab their pitchforks!

Okay, but what about when work clearly doesn’t meet the standard of care? In the example I originally gave we see open margins and a short endo fill. Now what? We have a duty to accurately report the dental conditions we see, but we do not have a right to be jerks about it.

I’d leave the other dentist out of my discussion entirely. I’d inform the patient about my concerns and the need to replace work. If the patient tells us that the work was recently completed or asks if the other dentist screwed up, I’d say something like:

I’m sure the other dentist did the best job that he could at the time. These things happen. They happen to me every now and then, too. What’s important is that we turn this around before it becomes a problem.

If the patient is still upset about the issue, especially from a financial stand point, it’s good form to contact the dentist privately. We may be able to resolve the matter without unnecessary stress and anguish for everyone concerned.

Two notable exceptions are when we see gross negligence or repeated sub-standard work from the same dentist. In these cases contacting the dentist can definitely be a great first step although we may feel less comfortable picking up the phone. Another option is to contact the local dental society and ask for guidance.

In all of these scenarios we shouldn’t speak negatively about one another, especially in front of patients. We are members of a profession. Although we shouldn’t conceal each other’s errors, we should be compassionate and respectful when reporting them. Dentistry tests us physically and mentally and our skills may not always be up to the challenge. No one does perfect work all the time. When we screw up we hope that the next dentist will be diplomatic about our mistakes.

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