The Principles Of Dental Ethics: An Introduction For Parents

Dental practice is a "sensitive" affair. No pun intended. The incorporation of ethical issues into the various fields of dental practice mainly serves to protect and advance the welfare of patients in the hands of dental health practitioners.

Dental practice is guided by a number of ethical principles that apply to all dental health practitioners regardless of their field of specialization, level of expertise, academic qualifications and so on. Three of these principles are discussed below for the benefit of parents involved in a dental malpractice lawsuit.

The Principle Of Autonomy

This ethical principle is commonly referred to as the principle of self-governance in dental circles. The principle of autonomy gives a patient the right to confidentiality and the right to self-determination.

Dental health practitioners are expected to respect the patient's rights as granted by this principle. As such, it is the practitioner's duty to treat the patient with the bounds of accepted treatment in mind and in accordance with the desires of the patient. This principle also emphasizes the role of dental health practitioners in protecting the confidentiality of their patients.

Also, the principle of autonomy obliges dental health practitioners to ensure that patients have a meaningful involvement in the process of making treatment-related decisions.

The Principle Of Nonmaleficence

This ethical principle is often summed up in the three words: "do no harm". The principle of nonmaleficence makes it unethical for a dental health practitioner to knowingly or unknowingly cause harm to a patient by failing to act in their best interest.

For example, this principle obliges the practitioner to refer patients to a practitioner within the relevant dental field of practice should there be such a need. A pediatric or family dentist (for example) who chooses to perform oral surgery on one of his/her patients is considered to have acted contrary to the principle of nonmaleficence.

This principle requires dental health practitioners to keep their skills and knowledge relevant and up-to-date throughout their dental practice. Dental health practitioners are also required to understand their personal limitations and to prevent these limitations from interfering with their practice.

The Principle Of Justice 

This ethical principle requires dental health practitioners to refrain from exercising prejudice in their practice. Practitioners should treat all patients equally and with fairness.

For example, a practitioner who refuses to administer treatment to a child patient based solely on the fact that (s)he has a blood-borne pathogen (such as HIV) is considered to have acted in an unethical manner.  

Any action taken or any treatment decision made by a dental health practitioner, which is contrary to the provisions spelt out in these ethical principles should be considered malpractice.