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Posted: 2/3/2011

Routine dental checkups may be relaxing for some people – lying back in the vinyl seat and watching the suspended television as a dentist makes small talk that you can’t return and works on your oral hygiene – however, dental offices carry their liability burdens and bear more risk than some may realize.

Dental practitioners, in some ways, are risk-managers required to observe medical risks and provide appropriate safety solutions.  The relatively low occurrence of medical emergencies surrounding general dentistry when compared to other health fields is encouraging and may lead some practitioners to be less concerned with safety issues than they ought.  Dental offices often incorporate various forms of sedation and, while your average downtown dental office is a far cry from the ER, dental offices must be prepared for the risk of sudden cardiac arrest, or SCA.

Many dentists willfully ordered AED’s without state mandates requiring them to do so, and while legislatures awaken to the real risk of cardiac arrest in dentistry and continue to impose tighter requirements for dentists throughout the country, some offices still don’t have AED’s on hand.

In 2002, The ADA Council on Scientific Affairs published a recommendation that dentists purchase AED’s for the offices.  To date no known lawsuits have been filed against dentists who didn’t have an AED, however, lawsuits have been won against health clubs, airlines, theme parks and businesses for failing to have AED’s and given the sedation employed in dental practices, it seems highly probable that an accident will occur sooner than later in an unprotected office.

Legally speaking, dental offices must uphold a “standard of care” equal to the attention, caution, and prudence that a reasonable person in the same circumstances would exercise.  What constitutes an acceptable “standard of care” is, as expected, a highly subjective and debated matter from industry to industry; but failure to meet the standard is negligence and damages resulting from the negligence could be claimed in court by an injured party.

For dentists in an age of growing AED awareness, it is prudent to assume if an accident occurred, having an AED available would be expected by the public, especially considering the number of dentists who already own a machine.  Plus, state statutes can impose mandatory standard care requirements, such as Florida, whose administrative code states that “as part of the minimum standard of care, every dental office location shall be required to have an automatic external defibrillator.”

Many states only require AED’s in dental offices where patients receive anesthesia or forms of deep sedation, but the fact that defibrillators are required in some practices lends additional probability to the chance of dentists being perceived as liable for not having one, despite the differences in provided treatments among practices.

Stories of AED saves emerge weekly, drawing increased attention to the abilities and availability of the life-saving machines, and, being more common, also means that they are easier to find. For dentists looking to purchase an office AED, numerous online medical retailers, such as HeartSafe America (www.aed-shop.com) offer discount packages for dentists.

Most importantly though, developing an AED strategy as a dentist may help save the life of a patient, and that possible prevention, rather than the avoidance of liability, should be enough to prompt the purchase of an AED for dentists lacking a defibrillator.

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