State responds to health crisis: Dentists may soon face regular inspections

TULSA -- The days of only inspecting dentist offices when complaints are filed are about to become a thing of the past as lawmakers and health officials scramble to take action in the wake of the health crisis involving a Tulsa oral surgeon.

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As an inspector with the Tulsa City-County Health Department, Larry Little spends his days checking out restaurants, swimming pools, barber shops and other establishments where health and safety issues impact the public.

Little says he believes businesses will do a better job of being clean and safe if they know an inspector will soon be knocking on their door.

"I don't know that there is a great tendency to cut corners but there is that segment that does or would," said Little.

Statewide, more than 140,000 individuals and businesses are inspected on a regular basis; however, doctors' and dentists' offices do not undergo complete inspections unless a complaint is filed, and that may have led to the health crisis involving Tulsa-area oral surgeon Dr. Scott Harrington.

A 17-count complaint against Harrington calls the surgeon a "menace to the public health."

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It alleges investigators found rusty or unsterile surgical instruments, used the same vial of medication on multiple patients, failed to keep records of narcotics and untrained dental assistants used medications to sedate patients.

A direct link to Harrington has not been proven, but at least 65 of his former patients have now tested positive for either hepatitis or HIV.

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"I don't know anybody who is happy with Dr. Harrington," said Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa.

Crain is pushing for change and he says lawmakers and the state dentistry board are working to make regular inspections of dentists' offices mandatory.

"Right now we license the doctor but we do not license the facility," said Crain. "What the dentistry board is talking about is that we will establish a licensing requirement for the dental facility."

Another issue is making those records more accessible to the public.
Henry Hartzell Jr. with the Oklahoma State Department of Health says they are working toward a goal of more transparency by putting more records available online.

"We are part of a pilot program to modernize and make state government more efficient," said Hartzell. "We are one of four agencies selected to develop an online license application system."

Dr. Gary Burnidge is an oral surgeon who tells 2NEWS he supports the move.

"It's something that is ingrained in all of us, to follow the rules and regulations, not to transmit diseases," said Burnidge.

Its oversight, Burnidge feels, will help restore public confidence in the dental profession. He says he has nothing to fear.

"It would need to be spontaneous and done in a constructive way, because I don't know a doctor of any kind (who) would not support anything like that. I would," said Burnidge.
Lawmakers say they hope to get something on the books this legislative session, but if not, definitely by next year.
Once dentist inspections are in place, lawmakers will look at doing the same for doctors' offices.

"If there is a silver lining in this cloud, I think it's going to be the recognition that we need to do a better job monitoring and inspecting what's going on in these dentist offices statewide," said Crain.
Health inspectors like Little say more accountability and oversight can make a big difference with public health.

"Honestly I think so," he said. "Just because there is that portion of the population in any given industry that will be there to cut corners and not try to do the right thing."

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