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Patient Right to be Accommodated vs. Professional Obligations of the Provider


A patient has filed two complaints after a dentist denied his service dog access to the surgical operatory. But wait...

This story raises serious and complex legal issues.

These days, we often hear stories of service animals being denied access (and therefore their owners being denied access) to services. We have all read of the treatment of service animals on American airlines. Policies seem clear; procedures less so.

But what do you do when a patient, who is entitled to accommodation of his disability, is not permitted to bring their service animal into the dental operatory? What if the reason given seems to make sense, i.e. the health professional believes there are reasonable grounds for denying the dog to the dental examination room. The health professional believes a dog in an operating room to be unhygienic. What if your governing body, in this case the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario, has no clear guidelines nor recommended procedures respecting service animals?

Well, if you are the patient, you file a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the RCDSO. If you are the dentist, you stand by your opinion that your decision to request the dog remain in the waiting room is fair, reasonable and required in the circumstance. Enter the case of patient Johnathan Thompson and dentist Dr. Tim Pringle.

Yes it is true Mr. Thompson could have theoretically attended a different dental clinic that permitted service animals in the operatory (again, in the absence of RCDSO guidelines on the topic, clinics appear free to make their own rules respecting these matters).

But Mr. Thompson is making a point. Failing to accommodate appears to be discriminatory conduct.

To make the point clearer, let's say Mr. Thompson is a child with autism or other disorder who requires the service animal to be calm and ready to receive treatment? Or perhaps he is visually impaired and requires the animal for mobility, or is positive for hepatitis and needs accommodation. Let's say he has (__________) and the dentist decided his clinic could not accommodate his concern, but was ready to refer out to another clinic?

It is our understanding the dentist genuinely believed he could not accommodate the request, that it would pose risks respecting sterility, and that it would be an undue hardship to make further accommodations.

Who can assess that risk? What is the right body to assess undue hardship?

With the change of government in Ontario this past month, Bill 80, Ontario Service Dogs Act, 2016, may never become law. That bill did provide some guidelines respecting service dogs. That act may have stated,  no person, directly or indirectly, alone or with another, by himself, herself or itself or by the interposition of another, shall, deny to any person the accommodation, services or facilities available in any place to which the public is customarily admitted, for the reason that he or she is a person with a disability who is accompanied by a service dog, or requires the accompaniment of a support person or the use of an assistive device to assist them with their service dog. This act may have been helpful.

We are eager for the appropriate body to rule on the matter of Thompson and Pringle, as it has far reaching potential. Does the future include service animals in hospital operatories? Can a health care professional set boundaries without reprisal? We can't wait to see the outcome!