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It’s difficult to process the news of an Oklahoma oral surgeon whose offices were closed after the discovery that patient care standards were grossly violated, resulting in a patient infected with hepatitis C and HIV.
Shock is foremost. How could this happen? How could no one notice dirty or rusty instruments? Who could ever think, nearly 30 years after it became understood how the AIDS virus spreads, that re-using needles is acceptable?
And how could these practices go on — for years — without one staff person sounding an alarm?
For now, the response may just call for patient reassurance.
The facts are alarming: In practice for 36 years, Tulsa oral surgeon W. Scott Harrington is under investigation after inspectors allege workers at his two clinics used dirty equipment and put patients at risk. Branded a “menace to the public health” by the state Dentistry Board, Harrington surrendered his license March 20.
The public alarm went off early this month when some 7,000 patients going back to 2007 were contacted to submit to hepatitis and AIDS testing after a patient, who had a dental procedure at Harrington’s office, tested positive for hepatitis C and HIV. In tracing the time of exposure for the patient, who had no known AIDS risk factors, health officials came to Harrington’s office and discovered a host of unsafe practices.
According to the Oklahoma Dentistry Board's complaint, the practice had inconsistent equipment cleaning procedures, reused needles and drugs, and had no written infection-protection procedures or tested sterilization equipment. Dental assistants also performed some tasks, such as administering IV sedation, that only a licensed doctor may do.
As a fellow patient and consumer of dental services, my inherent expectation is that a doctor abides by the “do no harm” pledge. Expectations, at minimum, include that the office is clean, protocol for the safe handling and disinfection of all equipment is followed, and that instruments are kept in good order.
Taking the extra step of reassuring patients of proper practices may be needed right now.
Direct your staff to explain, or provide written explanation, of how your office handles sterilization and equipment. Are your tools set out for you before an exam or do you open sterilized bags in front of your patients as a visual cue that the equipment is clean? I see my doctor wash and dry his hands as he makes small talk before my exam, another clue that sanitary practices are followed. Welcome questions as a way to reassure and educate your patients – and quell any unexpressed fears.
For doctors and other healthcare practitioners, this disturbing story is a sad and cautionary tale. Though the scope and disregard for patient safety give this story a high profile, it also casts undeserved aspersions on the profession and plants seeds of mistrust among the public.
But for dentists and their staffs, there are a couple takeaways: Know your office. Know your staff. If something seems off, question it. If your concerns alarm you, follow through.
Lives literally depend on it.
A tradition of working for the dental profession. The Chicago Dental Society was organized in 1864 and incorporated in 1878. The objective of the Chicago Dental Society is to encourage the improvement of the health of the public, to promote the art and science of dentistry and to represent the intrest of the members of the profession and the public that it serves.
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