Iowa dentist accused of ‘filthy’ office and patient retaliation fights license revocation

By: - September 28, 2021 10:00 am

An Indianola dentist is going to court to challenge the revocation of his license due to alleged inadequate patient care and “filthy,” unsanitary conditions in his office. (Photo via the Iowa Dental Board)

An Indianola dentist is going to court to challenge the revocation of his license due to alleged inadequate patient care and “filthy,” unsanitary conditions in his office.

Dr. Thomas Cooney, who was issued a license by the Iowa Dental Board in 1988, has been “the subject of numerous patient complaints” over the years, according to the board.

In August 2018, Cooney entered into a settlement agreement placing his license in probationary status for five years. The probation agreement included restrictions to ensure Cooney corrected alleged deficiencies in his treatment of periodontal disease.

In September 2019, the board filed new charges against Cooney alleging he failed to comply with infection control standards. That charge stemmed from an infection control inspection conducted by a board investigator who identified numerous violations of basic infection control protocols. The matter was settled in June 2020, with an agreement that required Cooney to comply with the remaining terms of his original probationary period and identify an infection-control monitor willing to inspect his office.

In December 2020, the monitor submitted a report to the board in which he outlined numerous violations that allegedly rendered Cooney’s office unsafe for the practice of dentistry.

That report, coupled with Cooney’s failure to fully comply with the terms of his probation, and the more recent filing of patient complaints, led to an emergency suspension of Cooney’s license in January 2021. The suspension order charged Cooney with failure to maintain safe and sanitary conditions for a dental office, retaliating against patients for filing complaints with the board, and failing to comply with board orders.

Iowa Dental Board records indicate an undisclosed number of patient complaints about Cooney were received by the board since 1988, three of which were received during his probationary period between November 2019 and September 2020.

In its January 2021 order, the board alleged the first report from the monitor had not been filed with the board until five months after it was due. The board also alleged that despite numerous violations cited by the monitor, Cooney “did not make any changes in his infection control protocol.”

The board then retained a dentist to review a random sampling of Cooney’s patient records and to review the records of the three patients who had filed recent complaints.

The reviewer concluded that 12 of the 13 records he reviewed failed to meet the minimum standard of care for dental record‐keeping. One patient’s records did not support Cooney’s decision to extract two of the patient’s teeth. The reviewer also concluded that another patient was charged for x-rays that were never provided.

Another expert reported that Cooney kept his dental instruments exposed in drawers, rather than sterilized, bagged and stored until use. She also noted that certain instruments were simply disinfected between patients, rather than sterilized as required by state and federal guidelines.

The expert also commented on the general cleanliness of Cooney’s office, noting that the floors were in need of vacuuming, the floorboards were “filthy,” and the sterilization area “was in need of a good scrubbing.” She also noted there were no receptacles in the office for the safe disposal of so-called “sharps,” such as needles and syringes.

In reviewing Cooney’s conduct, the board reviewed three letters Cooney sent to patients who filed complaints with the board. Each letter contained the same language, informing the patient that Cooney was able to “approach perfection only when he is working in an atmosphere of complete confidence, trust, and respect.”

The letters went on to say, “I have not been able to reach this mutual inspiration and understanding with you. For this reason, I feel you will be able to obtain more beneficial services if you consult with another dentist.”

Two of the three letters were sent shortly after Cooney received subpoenas for the patients’ records.

After a hearing on the matter, the board concluded that while there was insufficient evidence of retaliation against the patients, the other charges against him were supported by the facts and warranted a two-year license revocation.

“Revocation is the only sanction that will reasonably ensure adequate protection for the public,” the board said in its decision. “Dr. Cooney has been given repeated opportunities to correct identified deficiencies in infection control through continued education, inspection and reporting. Despite these opportunities, several infection control violations and general safety issues remained as late as April 2021.”

Cooney is now seeking an Iowa District Court order that will immediately remand the case to the Dental Board so they can consider his request for reconsideration. A petition filed in Polk County District court indicates that should the board choose to keep the revocation in effect, Cooney will seek judicial review of the board’s decision.

The Iowa Dental Board has yet to respond to the petition.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.