11/13/2012 08:59 EST | Updated 01/13/2013 05:12 EST

Cancer patient demands dentists provide transparency

A dying B.C. woman is calling on the body that governs the province's dentists to do more to protect the public who might want to know if a dentist has been sued or professionally disciplined.

Heather Matheson says she didn't know that several patients of her dentist, Dr. Gerald Wittenberg, had filed lawsuits against him.

Matheson claimed in a lawsuit she filed in February that Wittenberg failed to have tissue samples analyzed that might have shown the recurrence of her terminal cancer, a malignant melanoma.

One side of Matheson's face is paralyzed after the cancer spread from her nose to her facial nerves. Radiation treatment has blinded one eye, and doctors tell her she has one to three years left to live.

A few years ago, Matheson’s cancer seemed to be in remission after what appeared to be successful surgery. But she later detected a bump, which she thought was scar tissue, and wanted it reduced.

Matheson, a former CBC producer, went to Wittenberg, who had successfully performed an unrelated jaw operation on her a few years earlier.

"I knew him and had no reason not to trust him," she said.

Cancer returned

Matheson said Wittenberg reduced the bump, but failed to send a tissue sample for laboratory analysis.

Nine months later, Matheson got word from other doctors that her cancer had returned.

"Nine months — it could have meant it was still operable. In that case, if it was operable, then it would have increased my chances, I think, for living a few more years," said Matheson.

An investigation into Matheson’s case by the College of Dental Surgeons of B.C., found that "Dr. Wittenberg admits an error was made in not sending the sample to pathology. He states he has taken steps to implement a protocol within his office to ensure this cannot happen again.”

"He has expressed genuine remorse and sympathy," the College reported to Matheson.

The College took no disciplinary action against Wittenberg.

Matheson’s lawsuit is one of eight filed by patients of Wittenberg over the past 15 years. Four of them, including Matheson’s, were settled out of court.

Two other lawsuits were abandoned, one is still active.

Wittenberg denied any wrongdoing in any of those cases, and settlements are not an admission of liability or fault.

In the remaining case, Wittenberg was found at fault by the B.C. Supreme Court and was ultimately ordered to pay a former patient $1.5 million in damages.

"If I'd known there was one lawsuit against him, I would not have walked across his doorstep," Matheson said.

'Not sufficient protection'

Toronto lawyer Joyce Weinman, who specializes in dental lawsuits, believes the College of Dental Surgeons of B.C. should post legal findings against its members online, as the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons now does.

"In my view there's not sufficient protection," Weinman said. “I think accountability is really paramount, so if a person can't find out anything about that professional, it's kind of a shot in the dark."

B.C.’s College of Dental Surgeons told CBC News it deals with professional competence while the courts deal with malpractice. The College publishes disciplinary actions against dentists, but it says posting court findings could compromise its role as an unbiased regulator.

The College says it understands that the public might want to know more about dentists’ backgrounds and it’s now looking at just how much more information it can make public within the legal constraints it operates under.

The College issued a statement to CBC setting out its position.

Matheson said she knows it's too late for her, but believes that while dentists know their patients’ dental history, patients should know their dentists’ legal history, too.

"If I could shine a light on this area that's been in darkness for such a long time, then so be it, then it's a good thing."

Wittenberg did not respond to CBC News requests for an interview.

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