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The retained root and consent

10 August 2021

A patient consulted a new dentist for the first time, complaining of problems with a broken tooth. The patient had not seen a dentist for many months prior to that and was aware that the tooth had been progressively breaking; as she was now experiencing discomfort, she wanted the tooth to be removed. The tooth that was breaking was the 23 and was a cantilever bridge abutment for a missing 22.

The patient explained that she was keen to have implants provided in the near future
as she did not want gaps at the front of her mouth, nor did she want another bridge.
The dentist carried out the usual assessments and investigations and took a periapical x-ray of the area, which identified a grossly carious 23 with a periapical area. Even though the x-ray image was not clear, with good lighting, a buried root could also be seen at 22. The dentist did not record that a retained root was present at 22; however, he did recall telling the patient of it at the subsequent appointment, advising that as it was deeply buried and not causing problems it could be left in situ.

At the appointment to remove the carious 23, surgical removal was required as the tooth was so grossly decayed. The dentist raised a flap, removed the tooth and sutures were placed. The patient did not return for a review and the dentist did not see the patient again. Two years later, the dentist received a letter of complaint. The patient reported that six months after removal of the broken tooth (23), she had attended another practice to discuss implant treatment at the site of the 23. The new practitioner had advised the patient that in order to go ahead with dental implant treatment, she would need to have the retained root (22) removed first as it was at the site where an implant would be placed.

This would involve a surgical procedure, followed by a period of healing prior to implant placement. The patient was confused as she was not aware of the retained root of 22 and understood that the root of 23 had already been removed six months earlier. The new dentist showed the patient the retained root, identified following a cone beam CT scan and which on careful review was also visible on a PA film that had been exposed.

The patient’s complaint to the earlier dentist was that he should have identified that there was another root present six months earlier and, had she been told of its presence or that it may need to be removed to have implants, she would have opted to have it removed at the same time even when there were no symptoms.

The patient would have preferred to avoid a second, additional surgery, and could have avoided waiting another six months for healing. The dentist could recall telling the patient about the root, but the records did not reflect the conversation and there was no report in the records that a retained root at 22 was present. The dentist’s view was that even if he had identified it, as it was asymptomatic at the time, he would not have removed it, as there was no indication for its removal and this would have been the advice given to the patient.

Dental Protection suggested to the dentist that his records did not reflect the nature of the conversation that took place with the patient when she first attended with the broken 23. This was identified as an area of vulnerability. Concern was also raised in that the patient was not informed of all the risks or options of leaving a root in situ, including that a second surgical procedure would be required if it needed removal in the future prior to implant placement, and therefore it could be argued that valid consent had not been obtained when the 23 was extracted.

Dental Protection discussed with the member whether they would be prepared to offer a refund of the cost of the extraction at 23 in view of the patient’s dissatisfaction, or alternatively consider offering a contribution towards the cost of extraction at 22. It was considered that as the surgery to have the 22 removed could have been avoided, a contribution to this amount would be preferable. The patient was asked to send a copy of the treatment plan and invoice from the new practitioner to demonstrate the cost to have 22 extracted. With Dental Protection’s advice and assistance, a letter was drafted that offered the patient an apology, and the complaint was resolved with a contribution towards the cost of the extraction of the retained root at 22.

Learning points

• Ensure that the records accurately represent the true nature of any conversation that takes place and the advice given.

• The material risks need to be discussed with patients, which should be tailored to the specific patient. This includes giving the patient information about the treatment options and pros (benefits) and risks (cons) of these options.

• In this case, the patient had explicitly expressed that she wished to have implants placed in the edentulous sites and the material risk of leaving the root in situ was not identified or discussed.

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