Washington State dental deaths: are they being investigated thoroughly?

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Dr. Fred Quarnstrom, a Seattle Dentist and a dental instructor at the University of Washington has withdrawn his request for reappointment to the Dental Quality Assurance Commission (DQAC). In a letter he sent to Governor Christine Gregoire, Dr. Quarnstrom questions the review process involved in the cases of patients who have died as a result of dental procedures.

“We have seen cases closed where there were deaths and where non-licensed individuals were giving general anesthesia drugs,” Quarnstrom wrote. “I simply cannot continue serving when I have such profound reservations about how the DQAC process is conducted.”

Dr. Quarnstrom’s letter to Gov. Gregoire highlights his concerns:

  • His belief that the DQAC and Board of Health ignored and covered up cases where unlicensed and uncertified individuals administer anesthetic drugs and monitor patient recovery
  • One dentist received a general anesthesia permit when he had only completed 8 months of a required one year general anesthesia residency
  • Cases where deaths have been involved should not be closed or resolved in secrecy.

Read the complete text of Dr. Quarnstrom’s letter here.

Dental deaths are rare. Between 2005 and 2007 there were seven deaths in the state attributed to a dental procedure. Prior to that there were eleven deaths between 2003-2005 according to the State Department of Health. Despite the rarity, however, consumers do not want the quality of their dental care to be less than any other medical procedure.

The Seattle P-I’s investigation listed the following deaths that were dental-procedure related:

  • Jimmy Marks, a prominent Spokane Gypsy leader, went into cardiac arrest after undergoing general anesthesia. His oral surgeon, Dr. Mark C. Paxton, had been sanctioned in 2005 for using unlicensed assistants. The investigation into Mark’s death was closed within two weeks. Marks’ widow has filed a dental malpractice suit claiming an improper dosage of anesthesia was used.
  • Henry Dillow, 25, died from an “aggressive bacterial infection” after having his wisdom teeth removed. His oral surgeon, Dr. Leonard, would like for the details of his case to be released so that other dentists can be aware of the rare complication he experienced.
  • An 89-year-old Spokane woman died after being sedated for an extraction procedure.
  • The Spokesman Review also found a case of a death that that was not reported. Jon Gellner, 71, of Spokane aspirated blood into his lungs after Dr. Patrick Collins performed surgery on his palate. Though this case was dental-related, it has not been investigated.

After the Post-Intelligencer investigated dental deaths and talked to the dental board members and Dr. Fred Quarnstrom told Governor Christine Gregoire that he was quitting the commission, it seems like the State is taking notice. Now, according to the P-I, the top health officials for the state are urging state dental board to “investigate all patient deaths that occur in connection with dental care.”

In addition, the State Health Department is doing a cross reference of providers and their licenses. Most oral surgeons have both a dental license and a medical license, and prior to the Health Department’s actions, a sanction by one medical board would not show up on both license checks.

This information was brought to you by Washington Injury Attorney, a service of The Farber Law Group. We represent patients who have been the victims of dental malpractice. Dental malpractice can include the failure to diagnose, improperly administered anesthesia, bad outcomes of oral surgery, infection due to a dental procedure, extractions gone awry and orthodontics.

If you or a loved one has been a injured because of dental malpractice, please contact the dental malpractice specialists at The Farber Law Group. We will be happy to conduct a free case review.