New American Reform Responsa
162. AIDS and a Dentist
QUESTION: A dentist has tested HIV positive. He is not yet suffering from any of the symptoms of AIDS, and now wishes to know whether he can continue his practice as long as he takes proper precautions. Must he inform his patients? (P.R. Phoenix AZ)
ANSWER: AIDS is a serious illness for which there is no known cure or vaccine, so we must take the infection of the dentist very seriously. We should be concerned with this AIDS victim as the disease is fatal; he needs our compassion.
The fear of the general population is understandable as little is known about the disease, its incubation period or a potential cure. We must be concerned with both the individual and the larger community, and in this instance with the danger which may exist. It is true that the dentist can protect his patients through the constant use of gloves; the danger would then be minimal. The dentist, of course, wishes to protect his livelihood and realizes that any notification to his patients would destroy his dental practice, and that is probably an accurate assumption.
We must be concerned with pikuah nefesh, the potential danger to the patient. If a patient feels that there is no risk, or is willing to assume a very slight risk, then that is fine, but the patient must be informed that a remote possibility of infection exists. Furthermore, unless the dentist informs his patients now, any patient later tested as HIV positive will blame the dentist rather than any other possible source. By withholding this information he will find himself accused and sued. We would agree with the tradition based on the Biblical statement “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev 19.14; Pes 22b; MK 5a; Yad Hil Rotzeah 12; Sefer Hamitzvot, Lo Taaseh 299) and the obligation of avoiding unnecessary danger (Deut 4.9; 4.15; Ber 32b; B K 91b; Yad Hil Rotzeah Ushemirat Hanefesh 11.4; Hil Shevuot 5.57; Hil Hovel Umaziq 5.1). A patient would be well advised to be cautious about using this dentist even if the risk of HIV infection is small.
As the dentist must inform his patients of his condition, the dentist should be encouraged to sell his dental practice while that remains possible. He may not be able to continue some aspects of dentistry in a setting where his condition will be known, but will not effect patients, or simply retire from the field.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.