I Was Sent Away without Emergency Dental Treatment Over a Prescription

emergency dentist with hand on chin looking skeptical

I’m in a real bind and need emergency dental treatment, but my dentist refused to help me and now I don’t know what to do. The gist of it is, I have a tooth that gives me trouble every now and then. I know I need to get it taken care of, but I don’t have the money to do it, so I’ve been going back and forth on it for almost two years now. I went in to have it looked at thinking the dentist would give me an antibiotic and pain medicine like he usually does, but he told me that because I’m “refusing treatment” he’ll only give me the antibiotic this time and that’s only if I commit to having a root canal done next week. He’s treating me like I’m an addict. I’m angry, but I’m also embarrassed and I still have a tooth that needs help and no money to get it fixed.

I reluctantly agreed to let them put me on the schedule, so I could leave with something, but I’m going to have to cancel and my dentist says he is going to stop seeing me if I do. Can he do that? Can he refuse to help me when I’m in pain? Can he really kick me out of his practice? I’m not an addict. My tooth really hurts. Nothing I have at home is helping and I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. And, I already know he won’t help me. I’m going to get kicked out of the practice altogether. Everything is so overwhelming right now. What am I supposed to be doing?


Dear Aaron,

There are lots of things that could have been done differently, but let’s try to focus on what you can do to get things moving in the right direction now.

Yes, He Can Refuse to Write Prescriptions and Refuse to Treat You

Ultimately, doctors have to answer to medical boards. If they’re writing prescriptions, especially for potent medications, on an ongoing basis for specific people, it starts to look fishy after a while. He may not suspect you’re abusing painkillers, but he has to treat these situations very carefully, simply because some people do. Ergo, the same precautions get used across the board. That way, it’s never a judgment call as to whether he thinks someone is abusing prescriptions. It’s a standardized process. If he’s already given you pain meds before and you didn’t follow up with the necessary treatment, it makes sense that he’d put the brakes on it. However, one would expect him to prescribe something milder instead, not just cut you off entirely.

Although “refusal” seems like a harsh word as to why you haven’t gone through with treatment, it is accurate. He’s told you what you need to have done and you haven’t done it. You may have refused due to financial constraints, which is totally understandable, but it’s still a refusal. When patients don’t follow up with required treatment, the doctor can dismiss them from the practice. To be fair, it doesn’t sound like he’s trying to do that yet. It sounds like he really wants to help you, but his options are becoming limited due to how long this has been going on. Try to put yourself in his shoes for just a moment. He’s ultimately responsible for you and he has to be able to justify his decisions to a board if it ever goes that way. At some point, he has to cut his ties.

He is Still Required to Provide Emergency Dental Treatment

There’s a formal process for dismissing a patient from a practice. The doctor should give you written notice and specify a time at which he will no longer see you. However, up until that date, he is required to provide you with emergency dental treatment. Bear in mind, that doesn’t necessarily mean providing you with potent pain prescriptions. It means he has to be willing to provide you with some form of care that will alleviate your symptoms. That could mean lighter pain meds, antibiotics, a root canal, an extraction, or other services.

You Might Be Better Off Starting Fresh

It’s tough to say what kicked all this off or what condition your tooth was in when you were initially diagnosed. Problems naturally progress, so what might have only needed a filling two years ago could now need a root canal and crown, which only makes it more expensive to fix. However, even back then, they should have given you options to help make treatment more affordable or spread out the payments. If they didn’t do that, it may be worthwhile moving to a more affordable dentist who will work with your financial constraints, so you can get this stuff taken care of. If they’ve been good and helpful and tried to work with you on things, then really, it does fall on you to follow through.

This blog is sponsored by Dr. Steve Sirin, an Elgin emergency dentist.

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