NBC 7 Investigates: Dental Board Disciplinary Process Can Take More Than Three Years

A review of cases shows it typically takes more than three years to investigate and decide cases, which is double the state dental board’s target time

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Christine Chavez wishes the Dental Board of California operated much more quickly. Her daughter was a patient of a San Diego dentist who is currently awaiting a hearing that could result in his license being revoked.

The board first launched an investigation into Khoung Nguyen, who operates Clairemont Pediatric Dental, in 2018 after receiving a complaint from a parent. 

Last July, the dental board laid out eight causes of discipline for Nguyen, including:

  • Incompetence
  • Repeated acts of negligence
  • Excessive administering of drugs or treatment
  • Unprofessional conduct ⁠— obtaining fee by fraud and misrepresentation
  • Presenting false or fraudulent claim for payment under a contract of insurance
  • Failure to follow oral conscious sedation guidelines
  • Failure to properly continuously monitor patients undergoing oral conscious sedation

Chavez is one of a dozen local parents who reached out to NBC 7 Investigates after our story aired in February, fearful that their children underwent unnecessary dental procedures.

“As a parent, you trust the dentist or the doctor because that's their job,” Chavez told us.

Chavez said that trust was violated when she took her daughter Paige to see Nguyen in 2016. 

“I had taken her to my dentist and they don't see pediatrics,” Chavez said, "so they suggested we go to him. So we went … not for cavities; went for a cleaning, you know, because she was 5 and just a routine checkup.”

But dental billing records show Nguyen told her much more work was needed. Those documents reveal Nguyen performed four root canals, installed six stainless steel crowns and two fillings. The work took place in two sessions over a period of three days. She said it wasn’t easy on Paige.

“As soon as we got home, she was miserable,” Chavez said. “I mean, she laid right here on the floor, you know, throwing her head back and crying because it hurt.”

Over the next year, new problems arose with the teeth that Nguyen worked on.

“Like the gums were bleeding every time she brushed, like, they were swollen again, like halfway up the metal crown,” Chavez said. “Fast-forward: She ended up losing both those teeth. They had to be pulled.”

With Chavez’s permission, NBC 7 Investigates shared Paige's dental records and X-rays with dental expert Michael Davis. Davis regularly takes the stand as an expert witness for dental malpractice cases and is heavily involved in local and state dental affiliations. He called the work “gross overtreatment” and said he saw zero evidence of tooth decay.

“You feel bad,” said Chavez, tearing up. “... because as a parent you have to protect them…. You know, he's great with kids, he's patient. I feel bad that she went through probably a lot more than she needed to. I mean, she hates the dentist to this day.”

It’s the same feeling for nearly a dozen other parents who contacted NBC 7 Investigates, believing Nguyen put their children through unnecessary and inferior work. Some of that work happened after the dental board started its investigation in 2018, but those parents had no way of knowing about the other complaints, since investigations are kept secret until the attorney general’s office files an accusation, which didn’t happen until July of 2021.

Patient advocate Marian Hollingsworth pushes for changes in health care to protect consumers. 

“It's scary because you have, you know, x amount of patients going into that office every day trusting the boards to do their job,” Hollingsworth told NBC 7 Investigates. “You know, trusting that this person is safe. Because, look, the license is right on the board, right on the wall.”

Hollingsworth works with the Patient Safety Action Network and the Patient Safety League. She said the Dental Board of California needs to work faster.

“They could be under investigation for, you know, two to three years before they have that accusation,” Hollingsworth said. “And then, after that, it could be another year before there's discipline.”

NBC 7 Investigates dug through Dental Board Enforcement Program data to see just how long the process takes. During the past three years, 12,589 cases were submitted to the board. It assigned cases to investigators quickly — about four days, on average. Then it took about 148 more days to close the cases that were not referred to the attorney general for disciplinary action. But for those that were referred, it took on average 1,185 days from start to finish, for a final ruling in the case. That could range from dismissal to license revocation. That’s more than three years, and more than twice the board’s target time of 540 days for that process to happen.

“It's outrageous because it puts other consumers at risk,” Hollingsworth said. “I understand that the medical professional needs the due process, but by the same token, consumers deserve the protection, and the state agencies aren't doing that.”

NBC 7 Investigates asked the board why the process takes as long as it does. Officials wouldn’t point to any particular reason, only saying each case and investigation is unique, as is the time frame for the investigative process. However, it did publish a report in 2019 acknowledging staffing challenges. Specifically, the report states: “Many current staff feel worker fatigue from feeling overwhelmed with a heavy workload and not enough time to complete assignments. There is an extremely lengthy hiring process for sworn investigator positions. This creates a risk to the general public as assignments are not [performed] timely.”

This animation illustrates the average time the Dental Board of California takes for case intake, investigation and discipline.

Hollingsworth said one way to better protect consumers would be to find more money to hire more investigators so that cases are processed more quickly. Right now, the board is solely funded by licensing fees.

“They need to raise the licensing fees … this is a rich state,” Hollingsworth said. “You know, the legislature can decide that they're going to fund or partially fund these boards. That way it keeps us safer.”

NBC 7 Investigates reached out to Nguyen through his attorney to give him an opportunity to respond to the new accusations from patients. While he responded to our initial story in February, we have yet to receive a statement regarding the latest claims. The original response from Nguyen’s attorney is below:

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