Reporter shares experience covering investigation into dental clinics Date: 05/07/13
By Mary Otto
Shannon Muchmore, health reporter for The Tulsa World, has been leading the pack in covering allegations of lax sanitation practices at the office of oral surgeon Scott Harrington. Amid a steady stream of reports, she took the time to share some of her insights into the complexities of the unfolding drama.
Q: You have been credited with breaking this story, which since has gotten worldwide coverage. How did the allegations about Dr. Harrington’s office first come to your attention, and when?
A: We received word from the local health department that a dentist was being investigated but no other information at first. They were pretty tight-lipped until a press conference a few days later in late March that announced the investigation. We then worked to find context and get the story on our website as quickly as possible.
Q: State officials now say that at least 7,000 patients could have been exposed to HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C through unsanitary practices at Dr. Harrington's offices. They say health department visits to his offices on March 12 and March 18 found multiple violations, including improperly cleaned and rusted equipment. Have you ever covered a story like this before? What has surprised you most so far?
A: No, I haven't covered a story like this before. What has surprised me is the large number of people affected. The 7,000 number comes from patient records dating back to 2007, the earliest they are available. He's been practicing for 36 years, though, which means a great deal more could be affected. I was also surprised at his practice of allowing untrained assistants perform IV sedation, which is pretty scary to me.
Q: Has covering this story changed your daily work life? As I prepared these questions, I counted 19 pieces you had written so far. Have your editors been supportive? I notice you always include your email and phone number at the end of your stories. What kinds of calls and messages have you gotten? How have you responded?
A: My daily work life changed quite a bit as the story broke and in the days following. I focused almost entirely on this story and had to put other stories on the back burner. I always tried to be one step ahead, thinking about what would come next.
My editors have been supportive. They're always looking for the next article and have helped me come up with ideas to further the story.
I have received a wide variety of calls, messages and emails. Some want to tell me rumors about Harrington's personal life, others just want to vent and some tell me we're being sensational with the story. I tell them I'm just reporting the facts as carefully as I can and I can only work with information that can be verified and backed up.
Q: Do you have a sense from talking with health officials about the level of risk faced by Dr. Harrington’s patients based upon what they have seen?
A: Health officials have stressed that it's very rare for a person to get HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C in a dental setting. They believe that at least most of the people who have tested positive so far likely got infected somewhere else.
Q: You interviewed one man who told you he believes he contracted HIV at Dr. Harrington’s office. How did you approach the job of telling his story?
A: This was somewhat of a difficult story. First we had to verify his diagnosis and his visit to Harrington's office. In the story, I focused on how the man's life had changed and was sure to include the information that pointed to the possibility that he was infected elsewhere.
Q: The county district attorney noted in one of your reports that viable witnesses will be the key to bringing any successful criminal charges against Dr. Harrington. Can you talk a little more about how cases of illness can be linked to a health care worker’s office?
A: Health officials say they have to find the window when a person would have been infected and look at the person's activities in that time and risk factors in general. A lot of sleuthing must be done before they will link a case to Harrington. Lawyers who have worked on similar cases say they have used DNA testing to link some patients to the health care setting, but it is not always required. Proving a person got infected in that setting is difficult, they say.
Q: You discovered that Oklahoma's complaint-driven system for investigating dental offices is common among states but, unlike Oklahoma, most states give residents some way to find information about complaints online. How did you go about nailing down that particular angle of the story? In light of Dr. Harrington’s case, are people calling for changes to the system?
A: It began with the natural question of, if Harrington had no complaints in all his years of practice, what does that mean about the regulation of dentists? So we began to look into who had complaints and what they were, but found they weren't online and we had to travel to get them. We wondered if that was normal so we looked up and called other states and found out it wasn't.
People have definitely been calling for changes. They want to know how Harrington got away with what he was doing and the regulation agency had no idea. That's one of the questions I get most often. The dental board says they don't have the personnel to check every office regularly.
Q: Any tips you would like to share with other reporters who might be confronted with a similar story?
A: It's good to already have a relationship with the local health department before something like this happens, so you know who to talk to and they are more comfortable giving you information.
Be sure to step back from the initial scare and look at and report the science behind how these diseases are transmitted and how often that happens in whatever setting you're dealing with. And, as always, try to anticipate the questions your readers, listeners or viewers will have and be thinking about the next story.