4 Common Dental Practice Mistakes

February 19, 2016
Bill Schu

Mistakes can prove costly to your practice, particularly when you don't know you're making them. Here are four common mis-steps to avoid.

I have spent most of my career as a medical editor. Years ago, attending a healthcare trade show, I discovered on the final day of the event that my name tag, displayed prominently on a lanyard around my neck, read, “Bill Schu, Editro in Chief.” I did, at least, appreciate the irony.

Professionals in every field make mistakes or fail to recognize the mistakes made by others. But the mistakes we’re going to cover herein aren’t of the “pulled the wrong tooth” variety. These are mistakes in risk management or patient handling procedures that could potentially open you up to litigation. Fortunately, most of these mistakes are highly preventable.

Mistake 1: Failure to keep accurate, complete patient records.

Well-kept charts work better than your memory, and generally work better in court as well. That seems fairly obvious. But what may be less obvious is that the

responsibility for keeping great records is not just your own. As the leader of your practice, it’s important that you stress with your entire staff the need to keep impeccable records.

Particular attention can be paid to be potential problem patients who have constant complaints about current or past care, have shifted from provider to provider, or fail to pay for services in a timely manner. But even for patients who seem like friends, or for patient encounters that seemed to go well, all care provided should be carefully noted and kept with a patient’s chart. Each entry should be timed, dated, and signed by the person adding the note. Outstanding records aren’t a cure-all when it comes to facing litigation, but they can be crucial to a successful defense of you, your practice, and your staff.

Mistake 2: Lack of focus on the patient experience.

Can simple courtesy and attentiveness actually reduce the chances of facing a lawsuit? Yes. Unhappy patients are much more likely to pursue litigation than patients who like and trust you and your team. Patients who are unhappy with the overall experience of visiting your dental office may already have anger and resentment building up over a seemingly trivial matter such as an extended wait time.

Take every opportunity to engage your patients about their entire experience—not just the level of care they received in the dental chair. Encourage both direct and anonymous feedback through survey cards or your website. Take any complaints seriously and address them directly with the patient if possible, whether it was a problem with the care delivered or even something that may seem trivial. This will not only circumvent some patients’ desire to pursue legal action, it will also make them more likely to return to your practice.

Mistake 3: Failure to properly discharge a patient.

In running any dental practice, it’s pretty standard that some patients who were once regulars may suddenly miss appointments, switch their practice of choice, or otherwise disappear from regular care. For patients who may be difficult or who may have needed ongoing care, it’s important to follow up with the patient and pursue an official discharge of care, if necessary. This has the dual impact of starting the statute of limitations on any future legal action and creating some formal documentation that you are no longer responsible for the patient’s care.

Mistake 4: Failure to refer a patient for a procedure.

We all like to think of ourselves as experts in many fields, and you may have extensive training in many aspects of dentistry. But you have a comfort zone, too, and only you and perhaps your partners know what it is. Performing procedures outside that comfort zone might open you up to poorer outcomes than you’d like, patient dissatisfaction, and potential claims. Make sure you’re completely comfortable and confident before undertaking any procedure. If you have any hesitation at all, no matter how potentially profitable the work might be, consider referring to a specialist.