Failure to Provide Dental Treatment during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Due to the spread of novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario (“RCDSO”) has strongly recommended suspending all non-essential and elective dental services. As a result, many dental offices are now closed. While closing a dental office during this time may be a prudent decision, dentists should be aware that their actions could lead to allegations now or in the aftermath of the pandemic that they failed to provide necessary treatment. This could potentially result in complaints to the RCDSO.

While dental offices may close because they do not provide emergency, urgent, or essential services and/or do not have sufficient personal protective equipment (“PPE”) to practice, this does not mean that dentists cease being responsible for the dental care of their patients. The RCDSO states that all dentists are responsible for providing or arranging for dental emergency treatment for their patients. This involves monitoring voicemail and email, returning calls, and ensuring that patients have continuity of care, whether through remote screening and guidance, pharmacological management of pain, or referrals to dentists who are providing emergency and urgent services.

Patients could potentially complain that they did not receive timely treatment, or that their dental issues were misclassified as “non-essential”. They might argue at a later date, after the state of emergency has ended, that a lack of timely treatment enabled their dental issues to deteriorate and become more serious. There is also the potential for complaints relating to remote pharmacological management of pain. Patients might allege that their pain was improperly managed, or that they were overprescribed medications. This could potentially also lead to an eventual audit of a dentist’s prescribing practices.

In the difficult circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, dentists should approach every decision and patient interaction with great care.