What to do if you end up the subject of a complaint? Keep calm and carry on.

By B. Casey Crafton, DDS, Esq. and Stephen Kaufman, Esq. 

IMAGINE THAT today’s mail brought a package from your dental board. Inside is a subpoena for a patient’s records; a copy of said patient’s complaint against you; and a request for a written response to the complaint. What to do?

First, no matter how frivolous the complaint seems, take it very seriously and respond promptly. Don’t assume that because it strikes you as obviously baseless that the board will reach that conclusion on its own. (Indeed, if the board fails to hear from you, it may assume the complaint is valid because unopposed; worse, the board will get annoyed at you.) Boards are police, prosecutor, judge and jury all in one, with investigators, subpoena ability and lawyers who’d surely spoil for a fight with a recalcitrant dentist. Don’t trifle with your board

Call your lawyer and insurer, and follow their lead. You went to dental school, after all, not law school, and presumably — one hopes — you have no experience with the intricacies of a board proceeding. Retaining a lawyer isn’t a tacit admission of guilt; it’s a sign that you take the board seriously. An accused dentist, like anyone else accused of something is prone to self-denial and self-bias. A lawyer will not just assess the pluses and minuses of the situation but will know experts who can offer perspective and, if appropriate, help explain your blamelessness to the board.

Next, secure all your records having anything to do with the complaint: paper and electronic clinical files, billing records, schedules, X-rays and models. Save everything and don’t alter any of it. Don’t remove, add or edit a thing. We’ve seen more than one dentist compound his board problem by “fixing” a file — which can look suspiciously like a cover-up. If you believe there are problems that need to be remedied, discuss it with your lawyer.

1. Don’t assume [anything].

2. Don’t trifle with your board.

3. Don’t remove, add or edit a thing.

4. Don’t panic.

Finally, and most important: Don’t panic. Be quiet about the complaint. Loud proclamations of innocence are an understandable reaction to an accusation of professional misconduct, and it’s not uncommon for a dentist to phone board investigators right away to explain why a complaint is nonsense. This is almost always counterproductive. Why? Because, among other things, it’s not easy to explain an event exactly the way it’s recorded in a chart. The board might interpret the inevitable differences as evasions or, worse, lies.

Your ultimate goal is to fully and truthfully explain what happened — and it’s hard to do that via a hasty, visceral response. To paraphrase the timeless adage: Silence is most golden when you wait to gather all the facts before you speak.

STEPHEN KAUFMAN, Esq., is chair of the Health Care Group at the Wright, Constable & Skeen law firm, serving doctors throughout the country. B. CASEY CRAFTON, DDS, Esq., is a practicing dentist and a lawyer. Submit queries to skaufman@wcslaw.com.

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