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A Dental Patient's Bill Of Rights & Responsibilities

The best doctor-patient relationships are built on mutual trust and respect

By Dr. Douglas F. Roth

Dental patient bill of rights.

My father was a small town dentist. He graduated from dental school in 1934, returned to his hometown of Palmerton, Pennsylvania and, as they said in those days, hung up his shingle.

Those were the days of Drs. Gillespie and Kildare — immortalized by Lionel Barrymore and Lew Ayres on the silver screen. Benevolent, kind and unerring in their medical judgment, they were never questioned by patients who simply placed themselves in the hands of the godlike doctor, who often withheld important information to spare the patient distress.

By the time I became a dentist — 31 years later and 38 years ago — the doctor-patient relationship had changed. Patients wanted to be involved. They had questions and they wanted answers. They insisted on understanding their conditions and having options. They often ignored professional advice and made decisions on their own.

“I quickly learned that while I might be the expert on matters of clinical dentistry, my patients were the experts on themselves.”

I quickly learned that while I might be the expert on matters of clinical dentistry, my patients were the experts on themselves. I could not get that distinction confused.

As I have matured as a dentist and as a person, I have given a lot of consideration to the obligations I have to my patients and what is fair to ask of them in return.

Essentially, the dentist and his or her patient must be in agreement about what each party owes the other. These are what I consider to be your rights with an equally important set of obligations.

Bill of Rights — Your Rights as a Dental Patient

  1. You have a right to have complete information about your condition conveyed in words and concepts you can understand. Dentists have a language all their own but most “normal” people don't talk that way. When you are unsure or unclear, insist that your dentist explain things to you using everyday words. Hint: Sometimes staff members can be helpful here.

  2. You have a right to be presented with all reasonable options, each with its implications and risks. You can't make an informed choice unless you know what options are possible, what your dentist recommends and why he or she is making that recommendation.

    At times your dentist will have a clinical preference and you should understand why he or she thinks this would give you a better clinical outcome. That doesn't mean he or she would not consider an alternative treatment, however.

    In order to make an informed choice, you must also be in a position to reject other possible approaches to your care. While there are times when only one option is reasonable, you have a right to know when other options exist.

  3. You have a right to seek a second opinion (or more) any time you want additional information from another source. Second opinions are perfectly reasonable and you should not be afraid of insulting your dentist by seeking one. Professionals are used to conferring with one another and several heads are often better than one.

  4. You have a right to understand the fees you will be expected to pay and how you will be expected to pay them. In this area, there should be few, if any, surprises. While treatments can change due to changing conditions and new information, you should always be informed when this is the case so you can authorize a new procedure or approach. You should know how these treatment changes would impact fees.

  5. You have a right to be seen and be treated on time — within reason. While unexpected events with a previous patient can occasionally cause delays, these should not be regular events.

  6. You have a right to be informed of your progress and any changes that are required once you have embarked on a course of treatment. There are no guarantees in dentistry or medicine. Your dentist may offer a preliminary course of treatment that may not accomplish everything that was hoped for. Be prepared to move to more comprehensive or aggressive next steps when the desired outcome has not been achieved.

  7. You have a right to a complete commitment to comfort. Once your dentist has evaluated and assessed the cause or source of your pain, then treatment should proceed comfortably under almost all circumstances. Modern dentistry has many tools to ensure your comfort during and after dental procedures. Do not be afraid to ask for them.

  8. You have a right to be treated with respect at all times. This includes the privacy and security of your records and the privacy of your discussions with the dentist and staff members.

  9. Cleanliness and sterility go without saying. This is a non-negotiable standard.

Bill of Rights — Your Obligations as a Dental Patient

  1. You have an obligation to be truthful with your dentist at all times. What you don't reveal he or she cannot know. Do not withhold information especially about your medical and health status, and medications you are taking as this could hurt you. Don't assume that a medical condition does not affect a dental condition or treatment. Do not withhold your opinions and feelings — negative as well as positive. Dentists want you to be happy. If you don't tell them you are displeased, they can't take measures to correct that.

  2. You have an obligation to show up on time as agreed. If you make an appointment, keep it. Ask the same in return.

  3. You have an obligation to pay as agreed. Do not agree to treatment you cannot afford. Dentists have a right to be paid a fair fee for their efforts. Budget and plan wisely.

  4. You have an obligation to treat your dentist and his or her staff with respect and be a pleasant person at all times. Trust and respect are reciprocal. You can disagree without being disagreeable. This is fair to everyone.

I probably don't know your dentist personally. Yet I am certain he or she chose dentistry as a profession at least partly out of a genuine desire to help others; to use the means created by modern medical science to enhance well-being. In other words, you and your dentist have the same goal: to keep you healthy and happy. You can use this bill of rights to lay the foundation for the type of trusting, respectful relationship that can make that happen.