Dental practice claims alleging failure to refer, or failure or delay in diagnosis may arise from a general dentist’s lack of referral to a specialist. On occasion, patients have asserted their general dentist referred them to a specialist who provided substandard care and that the referral itself was negligent. Dentists referring care outside their background, experience, or training must take care to avoid liability issues associated with referrals.
During a routine prophylaxis visit, a middle-aged male reported a mass under his tongue, which his general dentist evaluated as an aphthous ulcer (benign and non-contagious). Several months later, another provider biopsied the mass and diagnosed Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma. Surgery and radiation treatment were undertaken, and plastic surgery was required. The patient alleged dental negligence and failure to refer to a specialist. The defendant dentist claimed that the patient had been told to follow up with his primary care physician (PCP) or an oral surgeon.
There was no documentation of a formal referral to a specialist or PCP, nor was there documentation of the dentist’s observations or referral recommendation. The adverse result in this case may have been avoided or the impact lessened if the dentist had documented his observation, evaluation, and testing to demonstrate a low suspicion of cancer, or if there had been a documented referral with follow-up on the referral.
Clinical Comfort Level
When specialists are unavailable, or the necessary care takes a patient outside of his or her local community, the patient may ask you to provide the treatment. Treatment that is outside your training or experience may increase the risk of injury to the patient. The risk generally lessens if the treatment is undertaken by a specialist. In addition, the patient cannot waive your professional duty by consenting to a negligent act. If the patient is injured, you will be judged against the standard of care for that specialty.
Do not let the patient pressure you into a treatment plan beyond your comfort level. It is important that you know your own and your staff’s limitations. Explain that the referral is the best treatment plan for the patient. Discuss that choosing no treatment may result in an adverse outcome, disability, or death. Spend more time helping the patient find the necessary specialist and clearly document your discussions with and counseling of the patient. If the patient refuses specialty care, carefully document an “informed refusal.” Consider terminating the patient from your practice if after thorough counseling the patient continues to refuse your recommendations.
The American Dental Association’s General Guidelines for Referring Dental Patients notes: “In some situations, a dentist could be held legally responsible for treatment performed by specialist or consulting dentists. Therefore, referring dentists should independently assess the qualifications of participating specialist or consulting dentists as it relates to specific patient needs.” Vicarious liability is a concern if you refer a patient to a specialist who lacks skill or judgment.
Patient safety is the primary focus when making a referral. Familiarize yourself with the specialists’ communication skills, clinical judgment, and competence. Explore complaints or evidence of poor care provided by the specialist. Find another provider in the community if a pattern of poor care develops. Consult with colleagues before recommending a specialist that you do not know well. Solicit feedback from both the specialist and the patient.
Effective communication is critical to a successful referral. Explain to the patient why the referral is needed for a particular treatment or condition and that you will remain the general dentist. Let the patient know what to expect from the specialist and the treatment, and reassure the patient that you will remain in contact with everyone to ensure the best possible outcome. Schedule the appointment while the patient is still in your office. If the patient needs to reschedule or cancel, the patient may; however, your staff has facilitated the referral.
Proactively avoid miscommunication between the dentist and specialist by providing a formal written referral. Always document the details of phone referrals followed by a written referral after the call. Referral letters should include the following information:
- Patient demographics and identification.
- Date of the referral and last date the referral may take place.
- Evaluation and treatment completed to date.
- Copies of diagnostics performed, including information about when it was collected.
- Diagnosis and prognosis.
- Desired evaluation or care the specialist is requested to complete.
- Your plan for after-care following the specialist’s intervention.
- A request for a consultation report and ongoing status reports.
Tracking patient referrals and return visits is essential to efficient patient care. A centralized and uniform tracking process should be kept separate from the patient’s record. The tracking should cover the timeframe from the patient’s referral to the return visit to the general dentist. Have your staff make this return appointment at the time they make the specialist appointment to avoid missed attempts to follow up. The tracking system should provide a reminder or task to move the process along or documentation for why it has not progressed. If the referral is not completed in a timely manner, the process should include contacting the patient and specialist to facilitate care.
Carefully document the referral process. In the event of a claim resulting from the referral and treatment, documentation is the best evidence. Documentation of the evaluation, treatment, and discussions with the patient that lead to the referral is critical. Copies of written communications and evidence of verbal communication, including phone messages with both the patient and specialist, must be kept in the patient record. Refusal or nonadherence to care must be recorded, with evidence of efforts to overcome the refusal or nonadherence. Finally, if the patient fails to seek specialist care despite your efforts, carefully document the events that lead to a decision to withdraw from further treatment of the patient. This decision should be followed by a properly executed letter terminating the dentist-patient relationship.