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What’s in Your Dental Clinic’s Water?

In September 2016, a dental clinic in Anaheim, California got blindsided by its building’s water supply.

As of the end of that month, at least 22 children who had undergone pulpotomies had confirmed or suspected mycobacterium infections, which were attributed to water supply contamination. At least six of those children were hospitalized.

Due to the contaminated building water supply system, the clinic was shut down.

While not trying to minimize the human toll of this incident, it could have been much worse. Some 500 children had root canals at that clinic over a three- to four-month period. It’s fortunate that the incidence of infection was relatively low.

This unforeseen occurrence will likely be a financial disaster for the clinic. It’s also a public relations nightmare from which the practice will be slow to recover, if it re-opens. No matter how much the clinic spends on a new building water system and assuring its safety going forward, it will be “that clinic where the kids got sick” for many years.

The Anaheim clinic’s experience should serve as a wake-up call for dentists everywhere.

Since the clinic was on a municipal water supply, the staff had no reason to suspect microbial contamination. Your practice is probably on a municipal or rural water supply, meaning that the water is safe to drink and use when it leaves the water treatment plant.

But there are a lot of underground water mains and building supply lines between that plant and your office. Have you had your water tested for contaminants?

And, looking more broadly, how safe is your building? If it’s relatively new construction, you should be fine, but what about volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the paint, the carpeting, and the furniture? Your patients’ exposure to VOCs should be minimal, but your staff is there 32-40 hours a week. You are, too.

What other environmental hazards might be present in your building, if not originating in your clinic? Office in the same building typically share a central ventilation system. The presence of mold in the ventilation system can cause a host of illnesses.

This post isn’t intended to be alarmist. Rather, it’s to get you to think about potential hazards to your patients and staff and how you can preempt those problems.

From a long-term perspective, it’s also about dealing with public relations issues when the unexpected happens. Do you have a plan in place to address negativity publicity, should it occur? That’s not something that anyone likes to think about, but some planning now will allow you to respond appropriately when you’re suddenly in crisis mode.

If nothing else, you’ll be able to quickly and accurately notify affected patients of the problem and relate the steps your clinic took beforehand to ensure the safety of your patients and staff.

In the short term, you might consider an email, newsletter article, or blog post to address the Anaheim incident and reassure your readers.

Not everything that can affect your practice is within your control, but it makes sense to prepare for the worst.

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