As a licensed dentist, your professional license is the key to your ability to practice. You've spent 6-8 years of your life learning the skills and earning the right to make a living as a dentist. That license not only represents your legal authorization to practice—it also represents your professional reputation. Upholding and protecting that license stands above everything.
Consider, then, what can happen if your dental license comes under fire through a complaint or an investigation. Having your license revoked could erase your entire career in a second—and even if you keep your license, any sanctions imposed by the Board of Dentistry can have lingering negative impacts on your practice. Ironically, many times these complaints arise from a simple misunderstanding—not any form of negligence on your part. What can you do to protect your license in cases like these, and what steps should you take? Where can you find the answers?
Attorney Joseph D. Lento understands what is at stake for dentists in New Jersey and Pennsylvania who are in danger of losing their license. Since knowledge is power, the Lento Law Firm has provided the following information to help empower dentists who are facing complaints, so they know what to expect and how to respond.
What types of offenses could endanger my license to practice dentistry?
The rules of practice for dentists are established by the Dental Practices Act in your state, and they are enforced by the State Board of Dentistry. Dentists may potentially lose their professional license for any behavior that violates the Dental Practices Act. Among the most common complaints that can result in the loss of a dental license:
- Substance abuse/addiction. Untreated substance abuse is one of the most common reasons for dentists to be disciplined by the board. If a practicing dentist has an addiction, the board may recommend a treatment program as an alternative to discipline—but if the dentist refuses treatment, or if he/she is found guilty of practicing while under the influence, it could result in license suspension or revocation.00
- Incompetent office practices. Overbilling patients, faulty record-keeping, and similar office irregularities can get a dentist in hot water with the board.
- Sexual misconduct. Unwanted sexual advances toward employees or patients, sexual abuse or assault, sexual harassment of any kind, or inappropriate relationships with patients—all these can be grounds for losing a dental license.
- DUI, criminal charges, or arrest. Certain criminal offenses may constitute a violation of your dental license. So can failing to report to the board if you have recently been arrested for DUI.
- Unprofessional conduct. Dental licenses can be jeopardized for any of a number of professional violations, including false/misleading advertising, mishandling or altering records, filing incorrect or fraudulent insurance claims, etc.
- Inappropriate drug handling and prescriptions. Dentists can lose their license for providing inappropriate prescriptions, failing to keep accurate inventories of medications, etc.?
- Violating standards of care. Incompetent care, misdiagnosis, gross negligence, etc.—these accusations can also jeopardize a dentist's license.
I was sued for malpractice. Will I lose my dental license?
Not necessarily. Malpractice falls under the category of civil litigation (i.e., personal injury), not your licensing. Any malpractice claims should be covered by your malpractice insurance. Only in cases of extreme negligence (see above) could a malpractice case prompt a board investigation.
What other penalties or sanctions might I receive from the Board of Dentistry?
In many cases, if not most, the Board of Dentistry may recommend certain remedies or sanctions for a complaint that does not involve losing your license to practice. Here are a few examples:
- License suspension. The board may suspend your license for a period of time subject to review.
- Fines or restitution. The board may impose a monetary penalty and/or require you to make restitution for any loss the complainant may have incurred.
- Probation/conditional probation. The board may monitor your practice for a time, possibly imposing conditions such as remedial education to fill any perceived gaps.
- Public reprimand. The board may place a citation on your public record.
It's important to note that any disciplinary action may have a negative effect on your professional reputation as a dentist—especially if it goes on your public record, as most sanctions do. Patients and employers do access these records to see if a dentist has been disciplined, and they will be less likely to work with you if they see negative marks of any kind. Even if your license to practice is not in danger, it's in your best interest to avoid any type of sanction if possible.
If my dental license is being challenged or someone has filed a complaint, what does the disciplinary process look like?
Every state Board of Dentistry may have variations in their policies regarding disciplinary actions, but generally speaking, they follow a similar pattern:
- Complaint. The disciplinary process almost always starts with a formal complaint to the Board of Dentistry. These complaints may be filed by patients, coworkers, colleagues, healthcare entities, or insurers.
- Investigation. The board must investigate all complaints to determine whether they have merit. The board will receive clarification from the complainant, if applicable, and will also request a response from you, which will be taken into consideration with the complaint.
- Consent order. After the investigation phase concludes, if the board feels the complaint has merit, it may give you the opportunity to agree to a “consent order” as an alternative to a hearing or simply rendering punishment. A consent order is a legally binding agreement between the state, the board, and you, in which you collectively agree upon a course of action that typically includes sanctions or remediation. If the complaint is, in fact, valid, this option can be preferable to the dentist because it shows cooperation and provides a path to full reinstatement.
- Formal complaint and hearing. If the complaint moves forward, the board will begin the process of formal discipline, typically involving a hearing in front of either the board or an Administrative Law Judge. Since this is a legal proceeding, the dentist may have legal representation. At the conclusion, the board will decide on disciplinary actions against you—up to and including the revocation of your professional license.
- Appeal. If you receive an adverse decision, you have the right to appeal the decision to the appellate court in your state. Bear in mind that these courts only review the case for errors and rarely reverse the decision.
At almost any point during the disciplinary process, the board may opt to dismiss the complaint if there is insufficient evidence or mitigating circumstances. Hiring a professional license attorney early in the disciplinary process can go a long way toward receiving reduced sanctions or having the complaint dismissed.
Why do I need to hire an attorney to defend my dentist's license?
You always have the right to defend yourself to the board against any complaint filed against you—just as you have the right to represent yourself in court. However, many dentists fail to understand all that is at stake when their license to practice is under fire. As a result, they often end up with a far worse outcome by trying to represent themselves.
Your license is a legal agreement with the state, and if the board takes action against it, it is a legal action under the category of administrative law. If you try to defend yourself in that situation, you may find yourself easily outmatched from a legal standpoint—not because you are necessarily guilty, but because you lack the understanding of how the system works. Hiring an attorney with experience in professional license defense puts you at a much greater advantage in that setting.
Remember—your license is your key to practice dentistry and your key to being able to do business. You can, of course, go it alone, but you'll likely be putting your license at unnecessary risk.
Do I need a special kind of attorney to defend my license?
Technically, anyone who is legally licensed to practice law can be your attorney in a license defense case. However, not every attorney has the knowledge and experience needed to defend you successfully. You might know a friend of a friend who happens to be a lawyer, and they might give you a great rate—but if that lawyer has no experience or education in administrative law, you might not be getting much help.
The best kind of attorney to represent you in a professional license case is one with specific experience in license defense—someone who knows how the licensing boards operate in your state, and preferably someone who has had previous experience with the Board of Dentistry. For best results, look for someone with a track record of success.
Doesn't it suggest I'm guilty of the charge by hiring an attorney?
Absolutely not. It only suggests that you take the complaint seriously—as well you should. State licensing boards understand that these are legal matters, and they typically expect you to have legal representation. There is no implication of guilt by hiring an attorney when a complaint is filed against you, nor will it skew the board's decision against you in any way. Hiring an attorney can only help your case.
How can a professional license attorney help me?
An experienced professional license defense attorney will have a solid working knowledge of the licensing rules and disciplinary procedures in your state. The attorney represents you in an official capacity with any interactions with the licensing board, the investigators, and, if applicable, before an Administrative Law Judge. Your attorney also compiles evidence, procures witnesses, and negotiates for the best possible resolution of the complaint against you. In short, the chances of keeping your dentist's license go up considerably when you have a good attorney—as do your chances of minimizing other possible penalties against you.
Why can't I just reason with the board myself?
Again, you have that right—but in most cases, it's a tactical error. Many dentists have the mistaken assumption that the Board of Dentistry is there to protect them. That's not the case; the board is there to protect the public. Once a member of the public lodges a complaint against you, the board is effectively no longer your friend. It's their job to get to the bottom of the complaint and scrutinize you and your practice to make sure the public is protected. Assuming you can “just explain” the misunderstanding to the board is a mistake, and in fact, anything you say may work against you. We strongly advise that any interaction you have with the board during an investigation or hearing is done through your attorney.
Do I need an attorney if the infraction is minor and will probably result in a minor penalty?
Even if you believe the complaint against you will result in nothing more than a reprimand, having an attorney is still a good idea. Remember that even small sanctions can do damage to your public reputation because they appear on your public record. Patients are less likely to trust dentists with disciplinary actions on their record, and joint practices may also be less eager to let you come on board with them. Hiring a professional license attorney will greatly increase your chances for minimized penalties or a dismissal of the claim altogether.
If an investigator comes to see me, am I obligated to answer questions?
No, you are not obligated to do so—and we strongly suggest that you don't. Investigators sometimes like to show up unannounced to try and throw the person under investigation off guard. You are generally expected to cooperate with the Board of Dentistry investigation but do not succumb to the pressure to allow an unannounced visit from an investigator. Instead, politely ask for their card and inform them that your attorney will contact them. This action meets the minimum requirements of cooperation without giving the investigators an unfair advantage.
Can a professional license attorney help get a revoked dental license reinstated?
Yes. If your dental license has been suspended or revoked, the Board of Dentistry State has a procedure in place for you to be considered for reinstatement, usually after a set period of time. This process may differ from state to state, but it usually involves some or all of the following:
- Filling out an application for reinstatement
- Paying any prescribed fees
- Submitting a detailed work history of all jobs you held while your license was inactive
- If your license was revoked (rather than expired), you may be asked for a written explanation of why you should be reinstated
- Providing verification that you have met any pre-determined conditions for reinstatement (e.g., continuing education, treatment programs)
Getting a dental license reinstated can be an involved process, so having an attorney oversee the process can help ensure the process goes more smoothly and that every step in the process is covered. The attorney can coordinate all the paperwork and fees, prepare a compelling argument for your reinstatement, and monitor your reinstatement status with the board. If the Board of Dentistry requires an action plan of some sort to reinstate your license, the attorney can also negotiate to make that plan as painless and seamless as possible for you.
Can a disciplinary investigation disrupt my practice? What do I do about marketing, recruiting staff, etc., during the investigation?
If the charges against you are particularly egregious, the Board of Dentistry may invoke an emergency suspension of your license prohibiting you from practicing until the matter is resolved. However, if no such emergency action is taken, you are free to continue your practice normally. Best practices suggest that unless your attorney says otherwise, you may operate on the assumption that the matter will be resolved amicably and that your practice won't be disrupted—which means you should feel free to continue marketing and recruiting just as you normally would. Many dentists go through complaints and investigations without ever having to disrupt their practices, and it makes no business sense to discontinue trying to build your practice based on an outcome that may never happen.
Am I required to tell patients, employees, or colleagues that I am being investigated? How do I respond if word gets out?
From a general standpoint, you are under no obligation to tell anyone that your license is under investigation unless your license has been temporarily suspended. The only other possible exception is that if you work with partners or are employed by a larger practice, sometimes these offices have policies in place requiring you to disclose any investigation.
If the word has already got around that your license is in jeopardy, you may have legitimate concerns that your reputation is already being damaged to an extent. To minimize any damage, if a colleague or someone in your care or employ asks you about it, simply acknowledge the investigation but affirm that you are cooperating fully with the Board of Dentistry to resolve the matter—and you intend to continue providing the highest quality care in the meantime. Answer any questions politely and professionally without divulging unnecessary details; resist the urge to be defensive or “explain your side” as these efforts could backfire and make you look bad.
How do I handle my patient load if my dentistry license is suspended or revoked?
If you or your attorney believe your license is genuinely at imminent risk, the best policy is to “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” It's time to begin thinking about how your patients can receive the best care in your absence. This is especially important if you plan to seek reinstatement of your license at some point because it demonstrates to your patients that you're looking out for them, and it builds trust and loyalty.
One good way to ensure ongoing care for your patient load is to build a referral system with other dentists that you know and trust. You might want to inform these colleagues of what is happening and ask if they would be willing to take on some patients if you lose your license. That way, if you are forced to close your practice for a time, you'll have somewhere to send your patients.
How soon should I hire an attorney when I receive notice of a complaint against me?
In most cases, the sooner, the better. Some dentists have a line of thinking that they don't need an attorney unless the Board of Dentistry calls a formal hearing, not realizing that the board won't even call a hearing unless the evidence against them is compelling. If you wait until the hearing stage to hire an attorney, you're starting the process at an immediate disadvantage. Hiring an attorney as soon as possible allows the attorney to get involved in the early stages of the investigation, increasing your chances of getting the matter resolved before it ever reaches the hearing stage.
If a complaint or accusation threatens your license to practice dentistry, your whole career could be at risk. Protecting your license should become our top priority at that point. It's not worth taking unnecessary chances by attempting to handle the matter yourself or taking a casual approach to the complaint. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has extensive experience in professional license defense cases in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, and he has a track record of success for helping dentists retain both their licenses and their livelihoods. Hiring a good attorney now could save your career. To learn more about how we can help, contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to discuss your case.