When you're starting a new dental practice, it's important to ensure you're in compliance with all relevant laws to prevent legal issues down the road. A Priori lawyer can help you structure your practice to avoid problems and assist you if issues do arise.
Consumer Law Issues for Dentists
Like any customer-facing business, dentists must comply with all FTC requirements for advertising, product quality and other consumer issues. There are, however, other issues in consumer law that apply specifically to medical professionals, including dentists.
Every time you perform a dental procedure on a patient for the first time, you first need to obtain informed consent. All states have certain requirements for what constitutes informed consent, but in general, any informed consent discussion should include information about:
The nature of the proposed treatment, including necessity, probable prognosis, procedure length, recovery time, and cost;
Any commonly accepted viable alternatives, including specialist treatments and the likely consequences from choosing no treatment; and
Disclosure of any foreseeable risks of the proposed procedure.
After offering the informed consent information, you must be sure to answer any questions and then get an informed consent form signed. In general, consent is implied if the patient is made aware that a recurring procedure will be occurring (such as a cleaning every time they come to the dentist), but these requirements vary from state to state. If you are not sure of the requirements where your dental practice is located, you can consult a local dental lawyer.
Dental Patient Rights
If you are a member of an association or state licensing board with a set patient rights statement, like most dentists, you are held to its tenets as a matter of consumer law. Any violations leave you open to sanctions and lawsuits. Beyond just care standards, standards related to reporting, records or other dental patient rights issues must also be upheld.
HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, sets the standard for protecting sensitive patient data. As a dentist, your patient records are subject to HIPAA, which means that any physical and digital records must be protected with proper safeguards. In general, records of and information regarding patient diagnosis and treatment must be kept strictly confidential except when given written permission to disclose it to others, such as insurance providers.
Dental Malpractice and Clinical Negligence
When a dentist is determined to have failed to follow the generally accepted standard of care when treating a patient, they can face a dental malpractice lawsuit. Nerve injuries, failure to diagnose oral cancer or periodontal disease and unnecessary or wrongful tooth extraction are common triggers of dental malpractice suits. Clinical negligence lawsuits can be costly and complicated cases to resolve, even though payouts should ultimately be covered by malpractice insurance. If you may be facing a dental malpractice suit, it may be prudent to consult a malpractice lawyer immediately.
Many dentists will join a dental practice as associates early in their careers. These associate agreements can dictate not only your future earnings potential and career path, but also have greater legal implications. You should carefully assess the merits of these offers and scrutinize for any limiting clauses, such as transfer of ownership of patient charts, non-solicitation provisions and non-compete clauses. If you are not sure of the potential legal implications of an offered associate agreement, it can help to discuss the contract with an attorney.
Practice Buy-Ins and Partnership Agreements
When you are offered a chance to buy into a practice or to be made partner, it’s tempting to accept right away, but it’s important to know exactly what you are getting into first. Partnership agreements will dictate your tax burden, legal liability, management responsibilities and many other factors of your business. It’s important not to sign such a document unless you are sure that all the legal consequences are in your best interests—or at the very least that you are fully informed of their consequences.
What other legal issues may I deal with in my dental practice?
There are many legal issues in dental practices that you will face throughout your career, especially if you decide to start your own business. These range from incorporation to supplier contracts to employee law and everything in between. If you are concerned about the legal liability that your practice opens you to, it may be helpful to discuss your options with an experienced dental lawyer.
Are there any special considerations for dental office leases?
Yes. Beyond the typical legal and logistical needs of a typical lease agreement, you must meet the necessary health and sanitation requirements for a dental office. Ideally, these should be written into the lease agreement to ensure that there are no difficulties meeting them later.