Most Oklahoma dental professionals believe the media coverage of the infection control violations allegedly committed by a Tulsa oral surgeon was “overblown” by the state’s media sources, according to a survey conducted by PennWell Corp. (publishers of Dental Economics and RDH magazines).
While 54% criticized the media coverage of Dr. Scott Harrington’s oral surgery practices in late March, most Oklahoma dental professionals said the publicity had little impact on their dental practices.
One survey participant noted, “The incident was reported to the public in an unprofessional way. Words like ‘appalled, physically ill, and rusty’ are subjective and create public hysteria. Those are words used by a few girls gossiping over coffee, not educated professionals. There may have been violations, and certainly the public has perceived it that way, but as a professional I question the extent and validity when it has been reported in such a Hollywood way. Good luck, Dr. Harrington, on getting a fair trial.”
An investigative team from the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry reported numerous infection control violations in Dr. Harrington’s two offices in late March, and initiated testing for several infectious diseases for 7,000 patients who had been treated at the offices. According to media reports, Dr. Harrington voluntarily closed his practices and cooperated with investigators, and is currently awaiting a hearing before the board in August 2013.
The survey received input from 39 dental professionals in Oklahoma, including 20 dental hygienists and 14 dentists. The statistics from the survey indicated that:
- 50% had “a few, not many” patients who “openly questioned you about infection control in your office.” 16% said no patients had any questions about the dental office’s infection control practices, and 34% said “quite a few” or “almost everyone” raised questions.
- 84% said patients are “reassured by our compliance with infection control standards.” Only 3% said “many Oklahoma patients are very suspicious about dentistry in general now due to this incident.”
- Only 8% noticed an increase in missed or cancelled appointments since late March when the Tulsa incident began dominating local news coverage.
The survey invited Oklahoma dental professionals to comment on the Tulsa incident or the local media coverage. Some examples of comments include:
- The media has totally overreacted and increased fear unnecessarily.
- I am not happy with the media coverage. I do not know what actually occurred in the Tulsa incident, but the media has made it impossible for our justice system to work fairly. The dentist in question will never be able to recover patient trust whether he is innocent or guilty. I am definitely concerned about public safety if there were violations in universal precaution procedures. I come from a state that did random spot inspections routinely. It was scary the first time, but actually helpful after that. Our office was in compliance, and they helped us organize the record keeping in such a way that made it easy to keep track of spore testing, etc., on a calendar posted in the lab.
- I believe that there were indeed some infection control violations in that particular office. However, I feel as though the spokesperson from the Oklahoma State Board of Dentistry could have minimized the alarm caused by the media coverage. Instead, I believe she caused greater concern by her comments.
- I find fewer and fewer people trusting the media with their rush to judgment and biased reporting. Most patients still trust their dentist.
- The incident should have been investigated thoroughly by BOD before going to the media.
- A few patients asked what we thought of it all, but they never questioned our infection control standards.
- Oklahoma doesn't require a background check, any training, or permits for dental assistants. The radiation safety course is only required for assistants who take X-rays. I think that this case demonstrates the need for minimum standards of infection control, an initial background check, and licensing, as well as required CE to keep that license/permit intact. Everyone that works in a nursing home has to have a background check. Why not dental assistants? I think that dental offices should be inspected at random. This has brought some issues to light that need attention.
- I think this incident was covered badly. We found out about it from one of our patients. We do not know the facts to answer questions from our patients. But rumors and media coverage have caused a great scare and distrust of dental professionals. Our patients aren't asking questions about our office; they are asking questions about Dr. Harrington’s.