To hear the state Department of Health tell it, getting a Springettsbury Township dentist to notify her patients they might be at risk of infectious diseases was like ... well, pulling teeth.
The department was notified April 19 by the Department of State of alleged problems in Dr. Jacqueline A. Marcin's 1820 E. Market St. office, and the two agencies made a surprise visit five days later.
Investigators found office workers were not properly cleaning dental tools prior to reuse between patients and that Marcin had advised her staff to lie about the office's sterilization practices.
On April 29, the state Board of Dentistry issued a 180-day suspension of Marcin's licenses and permits, claiming her practice presented an immediate danger to public health and safety, according to legal documents filed with the state board. Specifically, her patients were at risk of hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV.
Marcin was advised to tell her patients about the risk, but, as the investigation continued, it became clear she didn't follow through, according to the Department of Health.
That prompted the State Department, which oversees the state Board of Dentistry, to issue a statement June 4 recommending Marcin's patients get tested for the diseases.
At the same time, the Department of Health set up a toll-free hotline where the patients could receive more information. More than 700 had called by the end of last week.
"We made recommendations to ensure patient care and safety were her primary focus," Health Department spokeswoman Aimee Tysarczyk said of the actions. "We advised her to discuss the matter with patients. She has not."
We agree Marcin should have immediately notified her patients so they could be tested. We believe she had a responsibility to do so.
But we also believe the Department of Health should have taken steps to contact Marcin's patients on April 29, when it first suspended her license.
It's puzzling why the department would leave that decision in the doctor's hands for a month before acting.
And what the Health and State departments finally did was inadequate.
Issuing a statement and setting up a hotline is not the same as tracking down patients and ensuring they were informed they might have been exposed to serious diseases.
That's what happened earlier this year in Tulsa, Okla.
In March, health officials there found an oral surgeon practicing in unsanitary conditions, using rusty instruments and recycling needles.
The officials mailed letters to more than 7,000 patients -- those they could establish visited the doctor's clinic -- and advised they be tested for hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV.
By last week, 73 of those patients had tested positive for hepatitis C, five for hepatitis B and three for HIV, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Marcin, whose license has since been suspended indefinitely, is now taking steps to contact her patients.
Her attorneys said she's working with the state Department of Health on a patient-notification campaign to alert current and former patients of her dental office's lapses in infection-control procedures. Marcin also is letting patients know she'll pay for the testing.
This is good, but a little late.
As soon as the Department of Health determined there was an immediate danger to public health, it seems the department should have taken immediate action on behalf of the patients.