NBC 7 Investigates: Dentist Accused of Unnecessary Work on Children

State investigative documents lay out a case against a San Diego dentist, saying he pulled teeth, performed root canals and installed fillings children didn’t need.

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A pediatric dentist in San Diego is awaiting an administrative hearing that could result in the suspension or loss of his license.

The Dental Board of California launched an investigation into Dr. Khuong Nguyen, who operates Clairemont Pediatric Dental, in 2018 after receiving a complaint from a parent. Now, more than three years later, two mothers and a dentist NBC 7 Investigates spoke with are outraged that Nguyen is still allowed to see patients.

Dr. Khuong Nguyen
NBC 7 San Diego
Dr. Khuong Nguyen

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

NBC 7 Investigates spoke with two local mothers who say they took their children to Nguyen for services. One went through with treatment, the other sought out a second opinion. One of those parents’ stories is half of the state’s case against Nguyen. Both mothers shared medical records with NBC 7 Investigates to back up their stories, and we agreed to conceal their identities.

The first mom, Jane, took her 4-year-old daughter to Nguyen in June 2018. Her experience led her to file a complaint with the dental board.

“I should have asked more questions,” she told us. “I should have demanded more answers from this doctor.”

Jane said her child was experiencing severe tooth sensitivity. But, she said, Nguyen told her the child had issues with nine other teeth. According to the state accusation, Nguyen created a treatment plan that called for pulpotomies — a type of root canal — to be performed on 10 baby teeth. The plan called for eight of those teeth to get stainless steel crowns, and for the other two to get composite restorations, which is a type of filling.

However, records show those exact procedures were not what was performed, nor what was billed. The state said Nguyen charged Medi-Cal Dental for work on 10 teeth but only performed a root canal on one tooth; the other nine were said to have received resin fillings.

“As a mother, I regret very much not being close to her and not knowing what they did to her in the back room,” Jane said. “I should have been there.”

Days after treatment, Jane said, her daughter’s pain had gotten worse.

“I was freaking out,” Jane said. "I didn’t know what to do.”

Jane told us she decided to visit a different dentist. According to the state accusation, the new dentist was “unable to verify via X-ray all the work [Nguyen] claimed to have completed and billed for.” State investigators spoke with that second dentist about their findings and brought in a board-retained expert to review records. The state’s expert found, “Of the 10 teeth that respondent charged for treatment, only three teeth had actual treatment performed." The board-retained expert also reviewed Nguyen’s X-rays of the child and found no decay on three of the 10 teeth, and only possible decay on two others.

Another local mother, Malinda, also took her 4-year-old daughter to see Nguyen last spring. Another dentist had diagnosed the child with a cavity and referred her to Clairemont Pediatric Dental to get it treated. 

“I mean, it makes me sick,” Malinda told us.

Malinda said Nguyen diagnosed her daughter with four cavities, two of which needed crowns. But, Malinda said, something just didn’t feel right.

“It was just a feeling, intuition. Mom’s intuition,” Malinda said.

Malinda followed that intuition and decided to get a second opinion. Before even leaving the parking lot, she started looking up reviews on Yelp and Google. While there were positive reviews, the negative ones took her by surprise.

“I sat in my car, horrified, like, just nauseous at the reviews,“ Malinda said, “because there’s keywords the reviews mention, ‘suffering,’ ‘traumatized,’ ‘sweaty,’ ‘crying,’ ‘inconsolable,’ ‘in pain,’ ” she said.

Malinda said she took her daughter to see two other dentists for second and third opinions. Both dentists could only find two cavities, not four, and both recommended a less invasive sealant, not crowns on her daughter’s baby teeth. 

“It made me sick to think that I was that close to having that experience for my child,” she said.

Malinda said she filed a complaint with the dental board after coming across the state’s investigation. While her story isn’t included in it, the accusation details another family’s experience back in 2019. In that case, a board-retained expert says Nguyen performed five root canals and installed stainless steel crowns on five baby teeth. The expert also said he pulled two other baby teeth and used a sealant on two adult teeth. The state’s expert said only two of those teeth had dental decay on their surfaces, but they didn’t need root canals or stainless steel crowns. Furthermore, the expert said, the other three teeth had no sign of any decay and didn’t need any treatment.

NBC 7 Investigates spoke at length with Dr. Michael Davis to get perspective about these kinds of treatments.

“It’s absurd,” Davis said. “It’s absolutely way over the top!”

Davis regularly takes the stand as an expert witness for dental malpractice cases and is heavily involved in local and state dental affiliations. We sent him copies of X-rays and treatment plans from both mothers we interviewed, with their permission. Davis sided with the state’s accusation and was critical of Nguyen’s treatment plans.

“There was a big red flag — a lot of bells and whistles going off — and if I was an auditor in that case, I’d say, ‘Doesn’t pass. Doesn’t pass.’ ” Davis said.

NBC 7 Investigates reached out to Nguyen to give him a chance to respond on-camera. His lawyer responded to us, however, declining the interview. He also denied the state’s claims, listed Nguyen’s credentials and emphasized that he has never been disciplined by the dental board before. He also referred to the subject matter of our report as “not newsworthy and based on conjecture.”

Nguyen’s license is still active and he continues to work. Davis believes the state should have revoked his license immediately until further review. His biggest concern is over the state’s accusations that Nguyen did not follow proper procedures for sedating children.

“When we’re seeing a lack of monitoring on patient vitals for their oxygen levels — pulse, blood rate, respiration — you’re just rolling the dice for somebody else’s life,” Davis said. “It’s outrageous.”

In the case involving Jane’s daughter, the state said Nguyen’s office never sent the investigator a copy of an “Informed Consent form for treatment” despite several requests for it. The state also said Nguyen failed to chart the child’s vital signs like blood pressure or pulse during sedated treatment, didn’t record why sedation was even necessary and failed to obtain the proper consent for sedation.

This is Nguyen’s first accusation from the dental board, but a Medi-Cal Dental review in 2017-18 looked at billing on 20 patient files. The review found “76 instances where the treatment billed was not found to be medically necessary or dental work was found to be below the standard of care.”

The Department of Health Care Services, which conducted that review, told NBC 7 Investigates that it placed sanctions on Nguyen starting on Oct. 1, 2018. A spokesperson cited a “lack of evidence for medical necessity, remaining decay and fractured restorations.” The sanctions include prior authorizations review and special claims review, which require Nguyen to “submit documentation (treatment authorization requests, claims, photos, X-rays and other treatment documentation) to prove the necessity for services being requested and as evidence to help determine the quality of care.” The agency re-imposed both types of sanctions three times, and Nguyen is currently operating under both.

“Who knows how many other children have suffered through his hands,“ Jane said. “I don’t know why it took so long. I don’t know why, honestly.“

“For the longest time, nobody contacted me from the board,” Jane said. “I thought they had forgotten about my case. I thought they had thrown it out somewhere.”

Malinda agreed, saying, “Something needs to change because he’s currently out there practicing.”

Jane filed her complaint with the state in 2018. It took three years for the dental board to file its accusation against Nguyen. The next step is a hearing in front of an administrative law judge, which has not been scheduled yet.

Davis said California isn’t unique in its delays in taking action in cases like these.

“This is potentially life-threatening,” Davis said. “This is absurd. It doesn’t cut it. It’s not in the interest of the people of the state of California.”

NBC 7 Investigates dug into dental-board records and learned it had received 23,900 complaints during the past five years. In charge of investigating all of those complaints is the board’s enforcement division, which consists of just 44 people, and out of those roughly 24,000 complaints, 117 dentists were placed on probation, and just 63 lost licenses. 

Update: The California Department of Consumer Affairs now tells us there were 63 cases brought against 53 dentists, which resulted in licenses being revoked.

NBC 7 Investigates reached out to the Dental Board of California to ask how long it typically takes to investigate and take action against health professionals. They provided this statement: “Consumer protection is a priority for the Dental Board of California. In general, the circumstances of each case/investigation are unique as is the timeframe of the investigatory process which the board must follow in order to gather evidence to pursue disciplinary action against a licensee.”

However, a 2019 Dental Board of California Leadership Accountability Report highlighted staffing limitations as an issue. 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.”

NBC 7 Investigates pressed the dental board for details on when Nguyen’s hearing would be set. It responded, “Disciplinary hearings involving licensees of the Dental Board of California involve multiple agencies and coordination that must take place before a hearing is scheduled. At this time, a hearing date has not been set.”

The board also suggested parents do their research into any health professional, including dentists. You can search their name on the California Department of Consumer Affairs website. While all complaints are investigated, only those that result in an accusation are posted there. In California, dentists aren’t required to notify patients if they’re on probation, which physicians and surgeons are required to do. 

Davis also suggested looking at patient reviews on private websites. He also said parents shouldn’t be pressured into agreeing to same-day procedures and should get a second opinion if they don’t feel comfortable with the treatment plan.

“No ethical doctor is going to be offended when you ask for a second opinion,” Davis said.

This story started with a viewer tip. If you have a story you’d like NBC 7 Investigates to look into, contact them at 619-578-0393 or submit your tip here.

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