Public speaking. Death. Spiders and snakes. And for 10 to 20 percent of Americans, the dentist. For many of us, our greatest fears are irrational—we won’t likely keel over while delivering a toast or die a slow, painful death from a venomous bite. And the dentist? Well, those hooks and drills are just momentary pain.
Unless you are a patient of Dr. W. Scott Harrington.
[caption id="attachment_1844" align="aligncenter" width="400"] Image Credit: KidsDentalKare.com[/caption]
In late March, Oklahoma state and county health inspectors discovered rusty and unsterilized dental implements at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, office of Dr. Harrington. Despite an office that patients said looked “clean,” Oklahoma Board of Dentistry inspectors called the dentist a “menace to public health.” They are urging more than 7,000 current and former patients to undergo testing for HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
Since that time, more than 3,000 patients have been tested for bloodborne illnesses, and dozens of those have tested positive for hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or HIV. At least one patient tested positive for the AIDS virus, but an Oklahoma Health Department data security policy prevents the release of information about the numbers of HIV-infected people if the number is fewer than three. Fifty-seven patients tested positive for hepatitis C and three tested positive for hepatitis B.
According to reports, public health officials began investigating Dr. Harrington’s offices in Tulsa and suburban Owasso after an “index patient” with no known risk factors tested positive for hepatitis C, a bloodborne virus that can lead to chronic liver problems. What investigators found, they say, turned their stomachs.
Susan Rogers, executive director for the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry said, “I will tell you that when ... we left, we were just physically kind of sick. I mean, that's how bad, and I've seen a lot of bad stuff over the years." A 17-count complaint against the Tulsa dentist alleges:
Health inspectors called the conditions in Dr. Harrington’s offices a “perfect storm” for infections and have called the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to assist in the case.
The allegations against Dr. Harrington come as a shock to his patients, many of whom praised the outward appearances of the office. After all, this was not some shady, dirty, fly-by-night enterprise. Dr. Harrington is an oral surgeon with more than 35 years of experience. His offices are located in upscale areas of Tulsa and suburban Owasso. He owns a million-dollar home in Tulsa and a vacation home in Carefree, Arizona. Everything about Dr. Harrington created an illusion of cleanliness, professionalism, and success.
And yet 7,000 people are urged to undergo testing for serious bloodborne illnesses as a result of seeking dental care from this affluent, experienced surgeon.
A spokesperson for the Tulsa Health Department says that Dr. Harrington has voluntarily given up his license and closed his offices pending a hearing later this month to determine whether his license will be permanently revoked. Neither Harrington nor his medical malpractice attorney have responded to media requests for comment.
Dr. W. Scott Harrington faces not only the loss of his license, but also possibly felony criminal charges for allowing unlicensed assistants to administer drugs using IV needles. He will almost certainly face civil litigation for jeopardizing thousands of patients through cross-contamination and unsanitary conditions.
On Saturday,420 Oklahomans showed up at the Tulsa Health Department to get tested for bloodborne illnesses including hepatitis and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Health officials say they will have to wait weeks for the results of their tests.
According to the CDC, hepatitis transmission and contamination through dental practices is extremely rare, as most practices adhere to strict universal precautions for avoiding the spread of bloodborne pathogens and other diseases. Health officials have not confirmed a link between Dr. Harrington's infected patients and the unsanitary conditions in his offices. The hepatitis C infection rate among the general adult population is 1.7; among those patients of Dr. Harrington who have been tested, the rate is 1.8.
If those tested have no other risk factors for bloodborne illnesses, and they are determined to have contracted the infections as a result of Dr. Harrington's negligence, it seems likely that medical malpractice lawsuits will follow.
- Rusty, porous dental surgical tools which could not be properly sterilized
- Unlocked, unattended drug cabinet
- Expired medications in the drug cabinet—including one with an expiration date in 1993
- Unauthorized, unlicensed assistants administering IV drugs
- Needles reinserted into drug vials after use on patients
- An improperly used and malfunctioning autoclave, a device for sterilizing tools
- The autoclave had not been tested in at least six years, despite requirements for monthly testing