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Giving back by volunteering life-changing dental treatment can be one of the most rewarding aspects of your professional life. Don’t let confusion about liability coverage stand in the way of your volunteer efforts.
As you embark on volunteer opportunities this spring, you are in good company. The month of April is designated by the United States as National Volunteer Month. The 2021 World Giving Index (WGI), the world’s largest survey of global charitable endeavors, highlights the ongoing spirit of volunteerism in this country. For the past 10 years, the U.S. has scored higher in volunteer and charity efforts than any other nation, with 58% of Americans reporting that they participate in volunteer activities and charitable donations.
Dentists are leaders in choosing to share their time and talents to serve their communities and others in need. It’s essential that dentists be able to volunteer with confidence by understanding how their professional liability policies keep them covered.
There can be several different scenarios in which you provide treatment at no charge — volunteering through a nonprofit organization or community health event, delivering emergency care unexpectedly or treating a friend or family member. A few insights may help you better identify and manage potential risks in each scenario.
While your existing professional liability policies may already cover you, it’s prudent to contact your insurance carrier prior to volunteering services. The insurer may require additional information about the event, services offered and your clinical role as well as with whom the dentist will be working. The latter is to ensure that policyholders are not exposed to unnecessary risk, such as working with unlicensed dentists.
Even though treatment at an event doesn’t establish a continuing doctor-patient relationship, the individuals you volunteer to treat deserve the same standard of care as your patients of record.
TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line frequently receives calls from insured dentists seeking guidance as to required coverage for organized events. For example, a dentist was invited to participate in a volunteer event hosted by a community church. The church required participating providers to have a specific amount of coverage per day. In this case, the caller was already insured by TDIC, and the Service Department helped him acquire a “special event” endorsement, which would satisfy the demands of the host location.
Don’t let confusion about liability coverage stand in the way of your volunteer efforts. Speak to a trusted insurance advisor to ensure your coverage is adequate for your needs.
Some health care providers mistakenly believe that Good Samaritan laws exempt them from all liability when volunteering. The federal government and 43 states have passed laws to protect medical volunteerism; however, California has not. In California, liability remains when providing nonemergency treatment or assistance in the state.
For care rendered in a legitimate emergency that occurs outside of a health care facility, Good Samaritan laws usually lower the standard of care to encourage private citizens, including health care professionals, to assist others in emergency circumstances without fear of litigation. For more information, check the specific standards and limitations of your state’s Good Samaritan law.
Outside of an organized event or program, the risks of donating services can be more complex. Friends and family members who receive treatment at no charge must still be treated as patients of record. This means having an informed consent discussion, signed treatment plans, detailed chart entries and a thorough review of health histories prior to providing treatment — as well as discussing options for follow-up care.
It’s also important to note your liability remains the same whether the dental treatment is performed during or outside of normal office hours. And it’s the same whether the patient incurs treatment costs or not. Understanding that the liability is unchanged, the question is if no-cost care should be provided in certain situations.
TDIC’s Advice Line received a call from a practice owner that highlighted the problematic nature of offering free services. Her associate dentist had asked if he could offer discounted treatment to his nephew. The nephew was a pediatric patient with special needs whose family could not afford dental insurance. The associate dentist understandably wanted to help his brother’s family.
However, the extent of treatment needed and the fact that their office was not equipped to treat pediatric patients raised some concerns for the practice owner. Along with her concerns for the young patient’s well-being, the dentist felt uncomfortable with her associate’s request and was unsure how to refuse it without compromising their relationship.
The Risk Management analyst advised the dentist to prioritize what was in the best interest of the patient. The patient in question would be better served by an experienced, properly equipped pediatric-centric practice. Ideally, the level of care warranted might require dentistry in a hospital setting. Since the owner’s office wasn’t equipped to manage complex pediatric cases, it was not in the patient’s best interest for his uncle, the associate dentist, to offer care, despite the cost savings. The owner agreed with that approach to the situation and felt more comfortable communicating a denial to her associate’s request that was framed within what was best for the patient.
Volunteering does not absolve you of risks, but simple awareness of those risks shouldn’t deter you from offering your skills for the benefit of others. Giving back by volunteering life-changing dental treatment can be one of the most rewarding aspects of your professional life, especially when your skills help individuals and families who are experiencing emergencies or barriers to access to care. Whole communities are changed by dental and health professionals who put their compassion into action.
TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line is a benefit of CDA membership. Schedule a consultation with an experienced risk management analyst or call 800.733.0633. Reprinted with permission from the California Dental Association, copyright March 2022.