In an alarming incident involving two deaths in a dental office that gained extensive media attention, the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners permanently revoked the practicing license of Dr. Shawana Patterson, a dentist specializing in oral and maxillofacial surgery. This punitive action came in the wake of an extensive investigation that linked Dr. Patterson to the deaths of two patients. The decision came in January of 2019.
The Unfolding of Events
The NC Board formalized its decision in January 2019, bringing an end to Dr. Patterson's dental career in North Carolina. In addition to her dental license, her permit to administer general anesthesia was also nullified. Dr. Patterson had her practice, Patterson Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery, situated at 801 Phillips Avenue in High Point, North Carolina. Although the physical signs of the practice remain, it has effectively been shut down.
The Dental Sedation Deaths At Issue
The decision by the Dental Board to revoke the dentist’s license traces back to two specific patient cases, which are described in greater detail below.
The First Anesthesia-Related Death in the Dental Chair (RG)
The first case involved a patient, referred to in the Board's report as RG, who underwent a procedure on November 9, 2017. The board's findings highlighted several lapses in pre-operative care, notably Dr. Patterson's failure to obtain crucial medical records or consult with RG's primary healthcare provider. This neglect left her uninformed of RG's medical history, information that was vital to safely performing the planned surgery.
During the dental procedure, Dr. Patterson administered an amount of general anesthesia that the Dental Board found to be excessive, which led to a dangerous drop in RG's blood pressure and disrupted the oxygen supply to his vital organs. To make matters worse, when her assistant observed and communicated that the patient's skin had taken a bluish-gray hue—a sign of medical distress—Dr. Patterson allegedly chose to dismiss this serious warning and continued with the procedure. RG eventually became unresponsive and was rushed to High Point Regional Health, where he later died due to neurological complications arising from oxygen deprivation.
The Second Anesthesia-Related Death in the Dental Chair (DM)
Less than two months after the unfortunate death of RG, another patient, referred to as DM in the Board's report, experienced fatal complications post-procedure. DM had informed Dr. Patterson of her kidney issues and the presence of a dialysis catheter. However, Dr. Patterson neither consulted DM's physician nor sought her medical records to evaluate her suitability for receiving anesthesia outside a hospital setting. Again, the doctor allegedly failed to properly review the patient’s medical history.
In what was later described as “disregarding contemporaneous data demonstrating that [using general anesthesia] was contraindicated and potentially very dangerous,” Dr. Patterson proceeded with administering general anesthesia. As a result, DM experienced respiratory and cardiac arrest shortly thereafter. Despite some attempts at resuscitation, DM was transferred to a hospital where she later died of cardiac arrest on April 1, 2018.
Attempt at Covering Up Wrongdoing and Altering Dental Records
The story gets even more bizarre when one learns about how the dentist reacted once an investigation ensued. During its investigation of the dental sedation deaths and alleged acts of dental malpractice at Dr. Patterson’s office, the Board found that the doctor “had fabricated or directed her employee(s) to fabricate her treatment records in an effort to conceal her violations.” Thus, not only did the patients die under her care, but she allegedly tried to cover up any wrongdoing by changing the medical records or instructing her staff to change the medical records.
Regulatory Response in the Context of Death in Dental Chairs
Once a state dental board revokes a practitioner’s license, then what? Can the doctor simply move to another state and resume practicing, or is the public protected in some way?
Generally, all license revocations are reported to a national database. This procedure ensures that a dentist with a revoked license in one state is unlikely to practice in another. State dental boards generally get many complaints annually that are filed by aggrieved patients against dentists and dental hygienists, and each of these complaints are investigated.Although many of these complaints result in findings of no wrongdoing, complaints involving death are very serious. But for something terrible going wrong, you don’t see a death in a dental chair. Thus, when a patient dies during a dental procedure, the dentist can expect a serious investigation that could result in a dental license revocation.