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ADA council affirms importance of code of ethics during COVID-19 pandemic

The Journal of the American Dental Association publishes essay that emphasizes unity of member dentists

April 09, 2020

By David Burger

 Photo of Mike Kurkowksi
Dr. Kurkowski
The ADA Council on Ethics, Bylaws and Judicial Affairs’ ethics subcommittee authored an online essay as part of its Ethical Moment series in the May issue of The Journal of the American Dental Association, affirming that the ADA Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct is just as important as ever when making the difficult decisions they encounter on a daily basis.

“During this crisis, when everything seems in flux, it is comforting to remember that the values we pledged to uphold remain unchanged,” said Dr. Mike Kurkowski, council chair. “This article attempts to clarify the application of our Code to some of the emerging issues our member dentists must address. With the overwhelming volume of information practitioners are currently trying to digest, it's important to stay grounded. Placing our community and patients before our needs, and communicating honestly about the evolving science regarding this virus, will help guide dentists to the best decisions.”

The nearly 800-word essay, “Ethical Practice During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” addresses some of the ethical issues that have arisen in concert with the rise of transmissions.

“The ADA Code directs dentists to ‘have the benefit of the patient as their primary goal,’” the authors wrote in the article. “This might cause you to wonder how you can ethically defer elective procedures or even temporarily suspend your practice operations. The principles of Nonmaleficence (‘do no harm’), Beneficence (‘do good’), and Justice (‘fairness’) actually all support these measures ... By deferring or suspending procedures, we are protecting our patients and our communities from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Such measures allow us to, for example, reduce the aerosol in the office that is produced by high-speed handpieces, ultrasonic scaling units, and prophylaxis cups. This is precisely what Section 2, the principle Nonmaleficence, demands of us in imposing the ‘duty to refrain from harming the patient.’”

Dr. Guenter Jonke, subcommittee member, said that it was vitally important to reiterate in a clear and concise manner member dentists’ obligations during this pandemic — not in a didactic or moralizing way, but as a way to express a shared commitment.

“Ethics is the cornerstone our profession,” Dr. Jonke said. “During this crisis, not all of us may be level-headed. This article is very timely and an important message to all dentists. Inspiring others is another skill of excellent leadership. Remaining unified allows us to achieve greatness during these uncertain times.”

Dr. Jonke said that reducing aerosol, social distancing and conserving personal protective equipment for urgent procedures are all weighty issues facing dentists, including making the decision to treat emergency cases when possible, rather than referring patients to emergency rooms that are already too crowded.

“These acts unite the profession for all to see, but most importantly, for the safety of our patients, staff and our families,” Dr. Jonke said. “I think it is critical for our profession to adhere to our core each and every day and not just during this world pandemic.”

Ethical Moment is prepared by individual members of the American Dental Association Council on Ethics, Bylaws and Judicial Affairs or guests of the council, in cooperation with The Journal of the American Dental Association. Its purpose is to promote awareness of the American Dental Association Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct. Readers are invited to submit questions to CEBJA at 211 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611, e-mail ethics@ada.org.