Reporter Rachel Cook took a long and detailed look at the career of one Bakersfield, Calif., dentist and ended up with a series called “Dental Dangers,” recently published in The Bakersfield Californian.
The stories examine a history of complaints and lawsuits against Robert Tupac, who, as a board-certified prosthodontist, specializes in the restoration and replacement of teeth. Over three decades, more than a dozen of Tupac’s patients claimed his shoddy work left them with troubles ranging from bone loss to drooling, Cook wrote, and some patients reported that it would take thousands of dollars worth of corrective work to undo the harm.
In her reporting – done as a 2013 California Health Journalism Fellow – Cook described a state dental board system that allowed the alleged problems with the dentist to pile up outside public view. “A potential patient searching for competent dental care would never know about many of Tupac’s alleged professional shortcomings — or those of any other California dentist — without undertaking extensive and often difficult research,” Cook wrote.
“That’s because the Dental Board makes dentists’ complaint files almost completely inaccessible to the public, an agency practice that severely limits the state’s patient protection system’s value to consumers. The Dental Board and state law also don’t mandate that all dentists who are on probation notify their patients,” she noted.
Cook wrote that her efforts to investigate Tupac were further hampered by the reluctance of Tupac’s patients to talk with her about their experiences, nondisclosure agreements signed in some court settlements, and the lack of information available through civil court records. Tupac declined to respond to the reporter’s questions. His attorney, in a letter that ran with the series, defended the dentist, saying that competitors are behind the allegations.
In response to complaints about the care received by two of Tupac’s dental implant patients, the California Office of the Attorney General filed a formal complaint on behalf of the Dental Board of California, alleging Tupac was grossly negligent in his work. Those allegations were the focus of an administrative hearing last fall in Los Angeles, where the state Attorney General’s Office worked to “establish that Tupac was careless in his treatment of two patients, resulting in pain and great expense,” Cook wrote.
“The Dental Board alleges Tupac failed to appropriately plan for the patients’ care, altered their treatment records and allowed an employee to do work outside the scope of her license, including removing a patient’s implant.”
At the time of Cook’s stories, the Tupac case was “inching toward closure,” she wrote, with a final hearing scheduled to begin.
“An administrative judge will offer a proposed decision after the conclusion of the hearing. But ultimately, the fate of Tupac’s license will be decided by members of the Dental Board, which is comprised of eight dentists, five members of the public, one registered dental hygienist and one registered dental assistant. The board members can adopt the judge’s recommendation or change it,” Cook noted.
Even as Tupac’s case was being weighed, some people were pushing for change in California’s dental board system. Cook spoke with Tina Gomes, a San Fernando Valley woman who said her own terrible dental experience drove her to advocate for a new law requiring dentists to inform their patients if they are being disciplined by the dental board.
“We can choose our dentist but we’re not really choosing our dentist if the dentist isn’t revealing his or her actual harmful pattern,” Gomes told Cook.