Investigation highlights spotty regulation of fatal dental errors nationwide

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Photo by courtney0609 via Flickr.

Photo by courtney0609 via Flickr.

In a recent seven-part series for the Dallas Morning News, investigative reporter Brooks Egerton explores dental treatments that have ended tragically and gaps in the enforcement system that is supposed to hold the nation’s dentists accountable.

The Deadly Dentistry series opens with the story of a 4-year-old Dallas boy, Salomon Barahona Jr., who died in early 2014 after undergoing sedation for a dental procedure.

The death of “Junior,” the boy’s nickname, “opens a door into dentistry’s netherworld, in which professionals take chances with patients’ lives and the government largely tolerates it,” Egerton writes. “Most of the time everyone wins. And then one day they don’t.”

Texas is alone among states in clearly requiring dentists to report all deaths that might be treatment-related and produce a detailed accounting of those reports, Egerton notes. Drawing on government documents, insurance data and interviews conducted over 18 months, Egerton raises questions about how many dental injuries and deaths may go unreported around the country, and how many dentists may go undisciplined for malpractice.

“Since 2010, Texas has received at least 85 death reports. Projected out to the whole U.S. population, that’s a little over 1,000 deaths,” he writes.

Brooks Egerton

Brooks Egerton

As the series unfolds, Egerton describes what he sees as “a national pattern … in which state dental enforcers ignore many malpractice cases and leave the public in the dark.”

“The starkest example is New York. Insurers reported death payments for 31 dentists there from 2004-2013, federal data show – more than in any other state. Yet New York did not discipline a single dentist for a death during that time,” Egerton reports

The series also includes accounts of dentists who were disciplined by state dental boards after hurting patients. In one case, the Florida Board of Dentistry fined dentist Wesley Meyers $17,000 after two instances where dental tools fell down a patient’s unprotected throat. The dentist surrendered his license in 2011, according to the newspaper.

In another 10 cases, U.S. dentists were charged and convicted or given deferred-adjudication probation in connection with patients’ deaths.

In one of those cases, Allen Clare, a dentist in Coalinga, Calif., was sentenced to probation following the death of his son, 35-year-old Patrick Clare. Patrick, who was developmentally disabled and had epilepsy, died after his father placed him under sedation for a dental procedure.

The dentist pleaded no contest to an unlicensed sedation charge in the case. But in 2015, a judge terminated the probation early and dismissed the criminal charge.

“So,” said a detective involved in the case. “it’s as if it never happened.”

The online version of Egerton’s project employs interactive graphic sections that invite readers to learn more about the potential dangers of dental malpractice and the shortcomings of state systems charged with overseeing dentists.

“The risks go far beyond over sedation,” one online graphic notes. “Others include inhaling objects, bleeding, accidental stabbing, deliberate violence, unsterilized equipment, intoxicated dentists and facial fire. Click the icons to see the many ways your dentists can endanger you.”

Another graphic employs a map of the United States. “Every state government has an agency that’s supposed to protect people from bad dentists. But these agencies often leave the public in the dark, The Dallas Morning News found,” the graphic notes. “Most flunked our test of how well they uncover, track and disclose safety information. Choose a question on our test to compare states’ answers.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.