The path to becoming a licensed dental hygienist is an arduous one. You must invest years of time and thousands of dollars into your education, sit for the board exams, then apply for state licensure. All that to say, you've come a long way to become a dental hygienist... and yet, it could all hang in the balance with a single allegation of wrongdoing. State licensing boards take complaints very seriously and investigate them thoroughly--and they don't have an extremely high burden of proof. If the board believes you violated the rules or are a threat to public interest in any way, they can revoke your license--even a small misunderstanding or error in judgment.
Suffice it to say that if you come under investigation over license violations, you need solid legal representation in your corner to help protect your interests and save your career from possible derailment. Joseph D. Lento is a professional license defense attorney who has helped many professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York who are at risk of losing their license. If you're a dental hygienist facing possible disciplinary action against your license, the following information will help you prepare for what's ahead.
What Agency in My State Investigates Dental Hygienist License Violations?
Each state has specific licensing boards that oversee and regulate licenses for dental hygienists. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, their respective State Boards of Dentistry also oversee hygienists. In New York, the licensing board is the Office of the Professions. If there is a question regarding your conduct, the board that issued your license will also investigate the complaint and administer discipline as they deem necessary.
What Types of Offenses Could Jeopardize My Dental Hygienist License?
Dental hygienists can face disciplinary action over a wide range of offenses, but most of them have something to do with either violating state policies or violating public trust. Some of the most common offenses that result in loss of license include:
- Substance abuse/addiction. Substance abuse can be grounds for losing your license, especially if someone reports that you were under the influence while on the job. In some cases, the board may offer you the opportunity to get treatment as an alternative to discipline, but if you refuse treatment or were intoxicated at work, you could have your license revoked.
- Incompetent practices in the office. Failing to keep proper records and other office irregularities could land be grounds for license suspension or revocation.
- Sexual misconduct. Unwanted advances towards patients or employees, sexual abuse, assault, inappropriate relationships with patients, or sexual harassment of any sort - all these could lead to a loss of a license.
- DUI or other criminal convictions. Not all criminal convictions automatically result in loss of license, but DUI and crimes of moral turpitude can certainly result in discipline. Likewise, if you have a criminal conviction and don't report it to your licensing board, this could also be grounds for losing your license.
- Mishandling medications. Dental hygienists don't prescribe medicine, but they may apply certain topical medications for patients in the office, for example. If you dispense medications without authorization, use medications wrongly, or pilfer medications for your own use, these could all jeopardize your license.
- Violation of standards of care. General accusations of incompetent or grossly negligent care could result in loss of license.
Are There Alternative Forms of Discipline That Would Allow Me To Keep My License?
Yes. A licensing board can impose a variety of penalties other than revocation, depending on the severity of your offense and how it was handled. Some examples include:
- License suspension. You might have your license suspended for a certain period, with the possibility of reinstatement after review
- License restriction. You may be prohibited from certain activities and services as the board dictates
- Monetary fines. The board may impose a monetary penalty
- Mandatory continuing education. Your license can be suspended if you do not complete the continuing education requirements
- Reprimand. The board may issue a formal reprimand or censure
Can Disciplinary Actions Other Than Losing My License Still Hurt My Career as a Dental Hygienist?
Yes. While lesser penalties may allow you to keep your professional license, they can still have a negative impact on your career, as most disciplinary actions are a matter of public records. If an employer or patient searches your credentials online and sees a notation of disciplinary action, they may be less inclined to hire you or work with you.
What Is the Disciplinary Process for Dental Hygienists?
Although every licensing board has its own policies and procedures on disciplinary actions, the general pattern is similar for most of them. You can expect a process along the following lines:
- Complaint. Almost all disciplinary proceedings begin with a formal complaint to the board. Patients, colleagues, patients, healthcare providers, insurers, and coworkers... any of these may file a complaint against you.
- Investigation. To determine if a complaint is valid or credible, the board will launch an investigation. The board will request clarifications from the complainant if necessary and also ask for your response. Other witnesses may be interviewed, and documents may be subpoenaed.
- Consent order. A consent order is a legally binding agreement between you, the board, and the state in which you voluntarily submit to disciplinary actions as prescribed by the board. If the evidence against you is compelling, the board may offer a consent order as an alternative to a formal hearing.
- Hearing. The board will initiate the process of formal discipline. This usually involves a hearing before either the board or an Administrative Law Judge. As this is a legal proceeding, you may have your attorney represent you. At the conclusion of the proceedings, the board will decide whether to take disciplinary action against you.
- Appeal. You have the right to appeal an adverse decision to the appellate court of your state. These courts will look at the case for errors to make sure procedure was followed; they will not review the evidence to determine guilt or innocence.
The board can dismiss a complaint at any stage of the disciplinary process if there is not enough evidence or there are mitigating circumstances. A professional license attorney can often help you get reduced sanctions or have the complaint dismissed.
Is It in My Best Interest To Agree to a Consent Order?
It depends. If the board has amassed considerable evidence to support the complaint--in other words, if disciplinary action is unavoidable--a consent order may work in your favor, especially if it allows you to keep your license or at least keeps the door open for reinstatement. However, a consent order will also appear on your public license record as a disciplinary action, so if you and your attorney have evidence that refutes the complaint, it might be worth going into a formal hearing to clear your name. Do not agree to a consent order without consulting an experienced professional license defense attorney first.
If an Investigator Comes to My Home or Office Unannounced, Do I Have To Let Them in or Answer Questions?
No. In fact, you should not do so as it is not in your best interest. You have a legal obligation to cooperate with the investigation, but you are not required to say or do anything that might incriminate yourself or hurt your case. Your best course of action is to politely refer the investigator to your attorney.
Why Do I Need To Hire an Attorney?
Many times, dental hygienists and other professionals don't fully understand the implications of a complaint against them or what can happen if the board finds them guilty. You might assume you could convince the board on your own merit that the complaint is baseless--but that is not a realistic attitude. The board's first priority is to protect the public from bad actors, and if they receive a complaint against you, they aren't looking for reasons to exonerate you--in fact, it's often quite the opposite. The thing to remember is that the board is not your friend. If you're facing allegations, you need a strong advocate who can present your side in a compelling manner and ensure you are fairly heard. Hiring an attorney to legally represent you offers you the best chance at having a complaint dismissed or having reduced penalties that allow you to keep your license intact.
Doesn't Hiring an Attorney Make Me Look Guilty to the Board?
Certainly not. The board does not expect you to understand the legal and disciplinary processes in this investigation, nor do they assume you are guilty because you felt the need to hire an attorney to defend you. If anything, hiring an attorney demonstrates that you take the complaint seriously, as you should. The board is well accustomed to dealing with attorneys, and they will not presume you guilty if you hire one.
Do I Need an Attorney if the Offense Is Minor?
Even though your complaint may seem minor, it is wrong to assume that the board won't revoke your license because of a minor offense. Even if you are reasonably certain your license is not in jeopardy, minor complaints may still result in disciplinary actions which could still hurt your career. A good lawyer can help you to get minor complaints dismissed so that they don't become public record.
Is It Possible for a Professional License Attorney To Help Me Get My License Reinstated if It Has Already Been Revoked?
Yes, it's possible. Most states have procedures in place to allow you to apply for reinstatement if you qualify and after a period of time has elapsed. These requirements could be part of your reapplication process.
- Complete a reinstatement application accompanied by a written explanation as to why you are asking for reinstatement
- Pay any relevant reactivation and filing fees
- Submit a detailed job record for every job performed while your license wasn't active
- If the board has issued conditions for reinstatement, provide proof you have fulfilled those conditions
- Agree to any proposed plan of action by the board as part of your reinstatement process
A professional license attorney can coordinate your application, monitor its status, and negotiate with the board for the best terms possible for your reinstatement.
How Does Hiring an Attorney Improve My Chances for a Good Outcome?
Hiring just any attorney won't necessarily improve your chances for success. However, hiring an attorney with specific experience in professional licensing and administrative law can do wonders to help you achieve a favorable outcome. An experienced attorney can do any/all of the following:
- Review the complaint with you so you understand the implications and what is at stake
- Create an effective defense strategy for answering the complaint in a convincing manner
- Coordinate your defense by gathering evidence and bringing witnesses forward
- Assume the role of your official legal representative in all interactions with the board, including at a formal hearing, if necessary
- Negotiate with the board at multiple points to have the complaint dismissed or penalties lessened
- If your license has been suspended or revoked, coordinate your reinstatement process
I Was Notified That I Am Under Investigation. What Should I Do Next?
Your first step should be to hire an experienced professional license defense attorney as soon as possible. Don't wait until the formal hearing to hire legal counsel because, by that time, the board will already have solidified its case against you. Hiring a good attorney early in the process gives you and your attorney more opportunities to negotiate a resolution with the board that may help you avoid a formal hearing, get a lesser penalty, or have the complaint dismissed.
If your dental hygienist license is under investigation, your career and livelihood are effectively in danger. Don't let your years of hard work go to waste over allegations of misconduct or a misunderstanding. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has a lengthy track record of success in disciplinary defense, and he understands how the licensing boards operate. Take action to save your license today.
Contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to discuss your case and your options.