Almost every practicing dentist has experienced a problem patient. He or she may skip appointments, have unrealistic expectations, fail to pay bills, or simply be noncompliant with recommended care and treatment. Under certain circumstances, a dentist has the right to terminate his or her professional relationship with such a patient. However, there are steps that must be followed in order to avoid unforeseen legal issues, including a board investigation or even a lawsuit.
The Georgia Board of Dentistry regulates unprofessional conduct by dentists, and under Georgia rules and regulations, improper termination of a dentist/patient relationship constitutes unprofessional conduct. Keep in mind that a dentist/patient relationship can exist even where a dentist has provided dental treatment to a patient only once within the past year.
In order to comply with the legal requirements for terminating a dentist/patient relationship, the patient must receive adequate notice of the termination, including the date termination becomes effective, a statement of any further dental treatment required, and a means for the patient to obtain a copy of his or her dental records. In addition, the dentist must inform the patient of a location at which the patient may receive emergency dental care for at least 30 days following the termination. Remember that proper documentation can make all the difference in these situations. Dentists must be sure to document any missed appointments, noncompliance, communication with the patient, and make sure that the notice of termination includes all the necessary information.
As straightforward as these requirements may seem, issues can still arise. For example, there are occasions where a dentist may be forced to terminate a dentist/patient relationship prior to the completion of a lengthy course of treatment. In other cases, a dentist may not be sure what constitutes a legitimate reason for termination, or there may be uncertainty about whether a consultation or simply taking x-rays is enough to create a dentist/patient relationship. In order to ensure protection from legal liability or sanctions imposed by the Board, dentists must be sure to comply with every detail of the rules and regulations, and when in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask for the advice of counsel.