7,000. The preceding number represents less than a percentage point of the total population of Tulsa, Okla. But you'd better believe that almost 1 million residents in northeastern Oklahoma were talking about Dr. Scott Harrington and his two oral surgery practices nonstop for a couple of weeks in late March and early April.
No one in my neighborhood was talking about whether they were one of the 7,000 people that the health department wanted to test for hepatitis or HIV, checking to see if they innocently contracted a disease due to sloppy infection control practices while undergoing dental treatment.
While most of the conversations were indignant in tone — Dr. Harrington should be banished to a location far away from civilization — some residents were cautious in their condemnation, particularly within the dental community. After all, Dr. Harrington closed his practices voluntarily and, according to reports, cooperated fully with investigators. So Oklahoma dental officials felt like he was being tried unfairly in the media, which definitely found no lack of resentment among the 7,000 who were inconvenienced by the testing and the subequent wait of several weeks to find out if they had a disease.
Whether you think the media was fair or unfair with its coverage of Dr. Harrington, it would take some sort of divine absolution for the oral surgeon to resume his former life in the city where RDH and Dental Economics magazines are based.
If you're thinking about cutting corners with your infection control protocols, we don't recommend it. We're not talking about the legal consequences, although that's no small matter to weigh as you decide to discontinue a particular safety measure, or become merely complacent about it. Our front row seat observing the largest dental scandal in Tulsa County history just served up a powerful hint that this is not a place where you want to go.
Dr. Harrington's ordeal was initiated by one case of hepatitis being traced back to his office.
As of this writing, 3,235 of his former 7,000 patients have been tested. On April 18, the local health department said approximately 60 residents have been tested positive for hepatitis C, hepatitis B, or HIV; 57 tested positive for hepatitis C. The ongoing investigation was focusing on which patients contracted their disease from dental treatment or from another source such as lifestyle choices.
This issue of RDH contains Noel Kelsch's intitial online response to the exposure event. The Infection Control column on page 22 was modified slightly from the version that appeared on DentistryIQ.com. Gaylene Baker's article on OSHA compliance on page 26 was actually prepared before the news broke about Dr. Harrington's offices. Her article was also slightly modified for publication in this issue.
Again, we don't recommend taking shortcuts with infection control. It's plain wrong on a number of fronts, but the tarnishing of your reputation as a dental professional is just brutal. I don't wish what I witnessed in Tulsa on anyone. Do I believe Dr. Harrington and his staff are hardened criminals operating in our midst? Far from it. But 7,000 tests? That's a lot of forgiveness to expect from a community.
One of the most nagging aspects of this incident is my own personal awareness of these "shortcuts" occurring throughout dentistry. Sometimes you'll see a comment online at a dental forum about the lack of compliance with infection control procedures in an office. Former staff members will suggest that it's the reason they left their employer. It also pops up intermittently in the salary surveys, for example, that we conduct. "I didn't get a raise in 10 years, plus they had minimal infection control in their offices, so that's why I left."
It's easy to see why we're reluctant to cross paths with embittered employees. Move on to better jobs, and may inner tranquility find them. But what if the former employees are right? What if hundreds, if not thousands, of residents and dental office staff members are needlessly exposed to potential cross-contamination? While it's clear that the overwhelming majority of most dental offices place an extremely high priority on safety, should we be more vigilant in policing the few offices that are not compliant?
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