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Speaking Up About Safety Incidents: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

October 29, 2021
by Michelle Budd, D.D.S, Patient Safety Consultant, dentalcorp


With the colder weather approaching, I begin to think of the many times I’ve (quite literally) been on a slippery slope. Have you ever noticed that when we slip on ice, often the first thing we do is look around and hope nobody saw? When you think about it, wouldn’t it be better if people did see us so that they would know to avoid the icy patch or put salt down to prevent others from slipping and falling? We may have avoided injury, but the next person to come along may not be as lucky, especially if it’s an elderly person. Consider that if we don’t address incidents after they happen, however minor, we increase the risk that the same thing—or worse—will happen again to ourselves and to others.

Both personal and professional growth is dependent upon making mistakes and learning from them. When something goes wrong, whether it was in our control or not, we tend to focus on making the problem go away, often missing out on the opportunity to make a positive change. Many incidents that occur in dentistry are preventable; however, in a busy practice, we can miss the early signs and not realize until it’s too late. This is one of the ways that reporting and tracking incidents and near misses (also called good catches) helps dental practices to create improved processes and avoid the stress of serious problems arising unexpectedly.

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In a dental practice, there can be safety concerns during every patient interaction and in almost every task we perform. These can range from minor injuries such as chemical burns from acid etch leakage, to near misses such as unloading instruments from a sterilizer before realizing that they have not been sterilized, to serious incidents such as a wrong tooth extraction or a patient aspirating an object. All safety concerns are important and should be shared so that they can be appropriately addressed and prevented from happening again in the future.

Benefits of speaking up about safety incidents

  • Feedback from incidents that are reported provides a way to encourage team member participation in the safety of the dental practice and can become a key habit that helps to create a strong safety culture.
  • Following up on a near miss or minor incident is often less expensive than the potential costs associated with a major injury or equipment failure.
  • A correction implemented to address a safety issue or prevent an incident can result in process and production improvements for the dental practice.
  • With completed incident reports, a dental practice can protect itself in the case of a lawsuit. The report provides a complete record of what happened, which is required to provide a useful defense.

Tips for making safety a top priority in your dental practice

  • Keep in mind the high-risk nature inherent in dental practice and commit to consistently maintaining high standards of safety. Just because it’s the way you’ve always done it, does not mean that outdated habits or processes are still appropriate.
  • Foster a blame-free environment, in which team members can report incidents or near misses without fear of negative consequences. Fear of repercussions and non-supportive behaviour can contribute to an unhealthy safety culture in a dental practice.
  • Encourage team member collaboration across different roles in the dental practice to resolve safety concerns. Open and honest communication is key.
  • Dedicate sufficient financial and human resources needed to perform the checks and maintenance required. It’s never a good idea to wait for equipment to break and possibly cause an injury before replacing it.

One key way that we can become better dental professionals is by taking a close look at our weakest moments or our most difficult situations rather than avoiding them. Learning from others is also extremely valuable and is something that can be done through regular collaboration with colleagues, both within and outside of our dental practices. Being part of a collaborative network allows us to gain insight into safety issues before they affect our dental practices directly – and as the saying goes: it’s better to be safe than sorry!


About the Author

Dr. Michelle Budd works with dentalcorp’s Compliance & Risk Management team as a Patient Safety Consultant. She graduated from Western University with a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree and subsequently earned a Master of Public Health degree. Michelle has been a dental consultant for several insurance companies and government agencies and has travelled throughout Canada to help dental practices achieve and maintain professional compliance.


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