Dental Patient's Bill of Rights

Understanding the Legal and Ethical Guarantees

In 2009, the American Dental Association (ADA) issued a statement that outlined the rights and protections that must be afforded any individual undergoing a dental procedure. While they are not "rights" in the legal sense of the word, they are governed by a variety of federal and state laws, including the Bipartisan Patient Protection Act of 2001 and the Health Portability add Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996.

The Dental Patient's Bill of Rights can vary by state, with some affording greater protection than others. As a framework for ethical care, the ADA guidelines can be broken down into four fundamental components.

Your Right to Choose

Close up of dentists angled mirror in womans mouth
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In their guidance, the ADA asserts that you have the right to choose your own dentist. While the may seem obvious, it wasn't always the case. In the past, people were commonly denied treatment if they had certain diseases, such as HIV. With procedures now in place to prevent infection, such discrimination is considered unlawful.

The same applies if a dentist refers you elsewhere because of race, sexual orientation, or any other discriminatory reason. However, a dentist may refer you if:

  • There is no room on the schedule and you need immediate care
  • A procedure is well outside of the scope of the dentist's practice
  • A certain insurance or form of payment is not accepted by the office

Your Right to Full Information

As a patient, you have every right to know who is treating you and what a prescribed treatment entails.

In the past, doctors and dentists often had a paternalistic role; they told you what to do and you did it. No more. Today, anyone undergoing a dental procedure has the right to the full disclosure of information in order to make an informed choice. This includes:

  • The right to know the education and training of the dentist and dental team
  • The right to have a complete explanation of the purpose, goals, and risks of a procedure
  • The right to ask questions and receive answers
  • The right to know in advance what the cost of treatment is expected to be

Your Right to Care

The ADA dictates that, as a patient, you have a right to "reasonable arrangements for dental care and emergency treatment." This doesn't mean that the dentist has to be available at all hours or to participate in procedures for which he or she may not be qualified.

With that being said, the ADA adds that you have the right to "arrange to see the dentist every time you receive dental treatment." The interpretation of this varies by state. Some states, for example, requires a dentist to see you once a year even if you only go in for cleaning. Other states are far more lax in their regulations.

In addition to access, the ADA asserts that:

  • You have the right to receive considerate and respectful treatment
  • You have a right to accept, defer, or decline any part of your treatment
  • You have a right to ask for alternative treatment options (even though a dentist may decline if they are harmful, experimental, or contrary to prescribed dental practices)

Your Right to Privacy

Patient confidentiality is sacrosanct whether you are seeing a dentist or doctor. That means that everything about your care must be held and maintained with the utmost privacy as prescribed by HIPAA.

HIPAA was originally passed in 1996 as a means to protect a patient's access to insurance. Later, security policies were added to cover the sharing of medical records.

Broadly speaking, HIPAA dictates that dentists are only allowed to share information with the following entities:

  • The patient being treated
  • Any group or individual involved in the treatment, payment, or health care operations related to the specific dental procedure (including insurance)
  • Anyone for whom informal permission has been granted by the patient (such as a family member)

Other exceptions apply. Certain state laws are even more stringent, requiring formal, written consent and other restrictions.

Your Right to Obtain Your Dental Records

Confidentiality is not the only thing that HIPAA protects. Under the Act, you have the right to request and receive a copy of your dental records in their entirety. You won't be provided the original, however. Those must be maintained and secured by the provider.

Moreover, a dentist cannot deny you a copy of your records if you haven't paid for the services you've received. However, they are allowed to charge a fee for preparing and mailing the records, if requested.

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