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Much unknown about prevalence of illegal dentistry

Data easily available to public varies by state

July 23, 2018

By Michelle Manchir

A California man with a dental licensed expired for more than a decade was arrested after using a fake name to lure patients to Mexico to perform dental implant surgeries.

Two Arizona women unlawfully billed their "patients" thousands of dollars for dental-related work they performed without a license.

Two men in New Jersey were arrested after performing dentistry on a woman who developed a severe oral infection.

Image of illegal dentistry graphicJust this year, these are among the news reports in the U.S. related to illegal and unlicensed dentistry, though it remains unclear how widespread this activity is.

Each state has its own licensing board as the authority to regulate professional licensing, and neither the ADA nor the American Association of Dental Boards, or AADB, tracks all cases of reported illegal dentistry.

Dr. Norm Magnuson, president of the AADB, said each state is responsible for tracking the cases under its state board's jurisdiction.

Some states make it easy to search online for the number of license scofflaws.

Florida's Division of Medical Quality Assurance posts annual reports on unlicensed activity among professions. For the 2016-17 year, the state reported receiving 58 complaints about dentists. Forty-six of the complaints were referred for investigations, and 14 of those were referred to law enforcement. In the 2015-16 fiscal year, the state referred 19 cases to law enforcement.

The state of New York has a list of people with various professional licenses who agreed to "cease any actions … relating to the unauthorized practice or unauthorized use of a professional title in the profession indicated." Five names are listed under "dentistry," though it's unclear how often the state updates the list. State officials did not respond to emails from the ADA News about how often the list is updated.

Dr. Magnuson said he sat on Oregon's dental board for eight years, during which time the state reviewed no more than four cases of unlicensed dentistry, and two of the cases involved the same individual.

Many cases of unlicensed dentistry involve individuals who were dentists in countries other than the U.S., and who provide treatment in their homes to people in their communities after they move to the U.S., said Dr. Magnuson.

No matter the scenario, state dental boards want to stop the practice of illegal and unlicensed dentistry, Dr. Magnuson said.

Photo of Cathy Griffanti
Ms. Griffanti
 Photo of Dr. Willis
Dr. Willis
While the state boards do not have the authority to make arrests, most boards have an investigator who will take action when the board receives the report of a suspected illegal dentistry, Dr. Magnuson said. If evidence of wrongdoing is uncovered, the boards usually refer the cases to the appropriate law enforcement authority.

"The board is a starting point," he said. "Your state dental board is going to have an influence on the local prosecutors who would decide whether to bring charges. The state boards want to stop the practice of illegal dentistry but they don't necessarily have authority alone to do so," he said.
 
Dr. Magnuson said letting the public know they can usually check online to see if a dentist is licensed and educating them about low cost dental options in their communities, are a couple ways dentists can protect patients from illegal dentistry.

Earlier this year in Fairfax, Virginia, when news broke about a person who had contracted a life-threatening bloodborne infection following illegal dental treatment in the area, leadership with the Northern Virginia Dental Society took the initiative to contact the local TV station to do a follow-up story about local nonprofit dental clinics available to low-income residents.

"I explained that our clinics provide these individuals with a true dental home where they receive ongoing care and oral health education," said Cathy Griffanti, executive director of the Northern Virginia Dental Society. "It was extremely important to us as a society make every effort to get the word out that access is available, and the public need not resort to this unsafe 'underground dentistry.'"
 
The TV station took them up on the idea, and ran a two-minute segment highlighting two low-cost clinics founded by member dentists of the Northern Virginia Dental Society.

"I'm very glad we did it. I think it is important that we raise awareness that licensed, sanitary, ongoing care is available," said Dr. James Willis, president of the Northern Virginia Dental Society. "Several people have told me that they appreciate what the society is doing for the community through Northern Virginia Dental Clinics. They recognize that we are going above and beyond our obligations in a sincere effort to help others."

ADA policy states that constituent dental societies are urged to "support enactment of legislation which gives each Board of Dental Examiners the means to stop the illegal practice of dentistry or dental hygiene by an unlicensed person."

Dr. Willis said he feels it is important for dental professionals to discuss with patients the risks of unlicensed dentistry.

"Clearly our patients are seeking licensed professional care, so while they may not directly benefit from such a discussion," he said, "they may be able to caution others against obtaining unlicensed, unsafe services and to direct them to safe, sanitary alternatives such as local clinics similar to the Northern Virginia Dental Clinics."

For more information about the AADB, visit dentalboards.org.