It all began here in New York State…with Ethics

In the seventeenth century, all one had to do to open a dental practice was to hang up a shingle.  It was not necessary to go to school, to apprentice in an existing office or to use safe and effective techniques.  Any quack could practice “barberism” and skip town, leaving behind a wake of suffering victims.  Conscientious practitioners also were victims of these quacks because the public came to believe that all dentists were quacks. They recognized that unethical behavior from the unscrupulous reflects negatively on all practitioners.  In order to fight back, conscientious practitioners organized.  They formed a group known as “The society of Surgeon Dentists of the City and State of New York”, which became the ADA in 1859.   The group–now a professional association–pushed for reforms that would sacrifice some of their individual autonomy  for the betterment of the whole.  They obtained legislation that dentists graduate from an accredited institution and be licensed to practice.

Ethics of Dentistry

In 1866, the ADA formally established its Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct; a rule book that each member is required to live by in order to be called a “professional”. DSSNY established its own code—also called the Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct–to reinforce ethical behavior of professionals in New York State and to cover areas absent from the ADA’s code.  Professionals are held accountable to higher standards than tradesmen because they are required adhere to strict codes of ethics.  Under the codes, no professional is allowed to be merely a profiteer.   In exchange for the privilege of practice, professionals must be something more.  They must be honest, compassionate, straightforward in their relationships, and strive to provide quality care.

 “The dentist’s primary professional obligation”, begins the NYSDA code, “shall be service to the public”2.  This service includes appropriate conduct with respect to patients, education, treatment, emergency care, advertising, compensation and colleagues. “Professions owe society”, the code explains;2 , “the responsibility of regulating and disciplining themselves through the influence of professional societies.  All dentists, therefore, have the dual obligation of making themselves a part of a professional society and of observing its rules of ethics.”

Our ethics codes are clearly designed to protect the public and the image of Dentistry from those who would make false claims for their own profit. The high standards allow us to set high levels of care based on science and proven techniques.   “The code”, says Mary Logan 1, the ADA’s chief legal counsel, “exists to help secure Dentistry’s status as a profession. One requisite of professionalism is that new scientific knowledge be available to all within that profession for the betterment of the public.”

Adherence to a code of ethics is what distinguishes professionals from tradesmen; the conscientious from the unscrupulous; and science from quackery.   The fact that the public considers Dentistry to be one of the top 5 professions is a testament to the strength of our professionalism.

1Berry, James, “ADA May Face FTC in Court Collision Over Code”; ADA News; July 11, 1994; Volume 25, No. 13.

2Dental Society of the State of New York,  The Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct of the Dental Society of the State of New York; 1993.