The potential exposure of more than 1,000 patients at a Nova Southeastern University orthodontic clinic in Davie to viruses including HIV and hepatitis through dirty equipment continued for more than two years, from July 2015 to February 2018, administrators said Friday.
And it took the university seven months, once they corrected the problem at the end of February, to inform patients via Fedex letters sent Nov. 23.
Administrators said it took that long to send the letters to 1,152 patients because they had to conduct an “exhaustive” examination of patient records to determine who might have been exposed to the dirty equipment.
The university sent letters to patients who had braces placed on their teeth, braces removed or a bracket repaired by a group of 14 dental residents studying orthodontics at the clinic at 3200 South University Drive during the 31-month period.
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Brandon Hensler, an NSU spokesman, said in a written statement that the university had no legal obligation to notify patients about their potential exposure to disease but that the university did so out of “an abundance of caution and to ensure patient well-being.”
NSU was required by law to notify the Florida Board of Dentistry, which regulates dentists, and did so in June.
Linda Niessen, dean of NSU’s College of Dental Medicine, notified university administrators, including the president, in late April, Hensler said. NSU administrators then ordered an internal investigation.
Hensler said NSU will take “all appropriate disciplinary actions” but did not specify those actions or whether administrators or students would be subject to them.
The group of dentists identified as using the dirty equipment failed to use a complete heat sterilization process recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for their high-speed dental hand pieces. Instead, the dentists used a surface disinfectant wipe for their equipment, NSU officials said.
NSU’s College of Dental Medicine requires dentists at the clinic to own their hand pieces and maintain them. Students provide dental services at reduced rates to patients of all ages.
Kyle Fisher, an NSU vice president, said that less than half of the patients treated at the orthodontic clinic during the specified time were affected by the lapse in sterilization protocol.
Still, Fisher acknowledged that, “1,150 [patients] is 1,150 too many.”
While Fisher emphasized that the failure in sterilization protocol was isolated to one of 12 dental clinics operated by the university and only occurred among a group of 14 post-doctoral residents studying orthodontics at the clinic, an email sent to dental students at other NSU clinics in April suggests that the problem may be more widespread.
The email from Peter Keller, executive associate dean of NSU’s dental school, noted that students were having difficulty sterilizing their hand pieces when the students were running late during a morning clinic session.
“This can result in a delay in obtaining their sterilized hand pieces in time to provide patient care in the afternoon clinic,” Keller wrote in the email. “We have also learned that there have been problems with students getting their hand pieces sterilized in time to care for a patient in the morning, after they have been practicing in the [simulation] lab the night before.”
Keller added that the problem would be resolved by having students buy a second hand piece, which cost about $650 each.
“When one hand piece is being sterilized, the second hand piece will be available for use,” Keller wrote.
Fisher said Keller’s email was sent to pre-doctoral students at other NSU clinics and not the orthodontic facility in question.
“It’s a separate population of students and faculty, and it’s a separate population of patients and we have no abnormalities reported in that area,” she said. “It was clearly more of a preemptive measure.”
For the current academic year, NSU’s dental school has enrolled 515 pre-doctoral students and 105 post-doctoral students across a variety of specialty fields.
NSU spokesman Hensler said the university consulted with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an independent infection control expert about the lapse in protocol, and that the risk of patients being infected was “extremely low.”
He said NSU will cover the costs if notified patients consult with a doctor of their choice and if they receive a blood screening at an independent testing laboratory. For more information, patients can call NSU at 954-262-4144 or 954-262-1868.