Clean dentists: Do you know how sanitary your dentist's office is?

Clean dentists: Do you know how sanitary your dentist's office is? »Play Video
A dental worker sterilizes equipment at an office in Tualatin.

PORTLAND, Ore. – It only took one dentist with questionable sterilization practices to set off a massive public health scare last month in Oklahoma.

Health officials said 7,000 patients of a dentist in Tulsa were potentially exposed to HIV or hepatitis, and 60 of them tested positive for one of the dangerous diseases.

The situation in Oklahoma got us thinking about dentist safety here in Oregon. We were surprised to learn that a local group in the dental industry is actually trying to roll back the rules on patient protection.

We first wanted to know how the typical dentist office keeps things clean so we stopped by Green Apple Dental in Tualatin. They have systems in place for disinfecting and sterilizing equipment.

Dentist George Kang called what happened in Oklahoma “disgusting.”

“I was shocked,” Kang said. “I expect certain things are going to be done correctly.”

Kang and his team showed off the room where technicians sterilize all the equipment used in the office.

But what happens when things are done incorrectly?

Beaverton dentist Dr. Keith Larson admits he made a mistake when he took a syringe that had fallen into a garbage can and put it in a patient’s mouth.

“That wasn’t something I’d normally do,” Larson said.

He insists the garbage can had a fresh liner in it and he cut this corner because he was treating the patient off site. Rescheduling would have been a major inconvenience.

He told us he regrets the decision.

“I would have that patient make that extra drive if necessary,” Larson said.

“It’s not good. You shouldn’t take thing out of a garbage can, even though the liner may have been brand new and clean, it was still a garbage can,” said Patrick Braatz, the executive director of the Oregon Board of Dentistry.

The board fined Larson $2,000. The board is also proposing a $5,000 fine on another dentist – Dr. Hamid Zehtab of Lake Oswego – for sterilization violations.

There is also disciplinary action pending against two other dentists.

That may just be the tip of the iceberg of violations, however. The board’s executive director admits there is a backlog of 130 complaints they simply don’t have time to get to.

“We have a lot of cases that we’re having to investigate and only have a limited amount of staff. We’re a little behind right now. We’re investigating as fast as is humanly possible but we are a little behind right now,” said Braatz. “I don’t like that. I wish we were farther ahead. I need dental expertise to review some of the parts of these cases. I have a full-time dental director and two-part dental consultants. We probably need more.”

All of this makes an email sent to KATU News even more surprising. The note alerted us to new lax standards proposed for people who in Oregon who fit patients with dentures.

Denturists already play be a different set of rules than dentists.

Dental health expert Ginny Jorgensen is perplexed, too. She wonders why a reference to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines would be removed from the rules denturists must follow. The proposed rules lower the bar for what’s considered “dirty.”

Currently, the rule says any instrument used in the mouth “shall be sterilized prior to each use.” The proposed rule change would make it so that only instruments that touch the patient’s skin or are exposed to other infection material (like blood) must be disinfected or sterilized.

Instead of a hard and fast rule, it would be left to the discretion of the denturist whether to sterilize certain instruments or soak it in disinfectant.

“I’m really surprised as to why this would be taken out, because right now I’d think they’d be more in tune to doing and following the rules,” Jorgensen said.

Todd Young with the Oregon Denturists Association defends the proposed changes. He said the danger to patients isn’t nearly as severe as it is with dentists. That’s because denturists aren’t directly working on or cutting human tissue.

“It really is a stronger language when you look at is as a whole,” Young said. “But I can see where people, at first blush if you look at these things crossed out, it doesn’t look as good as it should.”

Since the Oklahoma incident, there’s been an industry-wide discussion about increasing random inspections. Right now, regulators only check out a dentist after receiving a complaint.