Despite years of professional marketing and millions of patient visits, a high percentage of the population still is either not aware of the importance of total oral health or does not care enough to achieve and maintain it. It is amazing that more than one third of the American population does not see a dentist regularly.
I recently read an article about how dentistry is a hot topic in Russia. The article was so inspiring because it spoke of a new industry being born, with a lot of attention given to teaching patients about oral health and how dentistry contributes to overall health and self-esteem. I think we need to go back to the simple, yet profound difference that dental professionals make in the lives of the people they serve and have the public understand what is happening to them and for them.
Illustration by Cheryl Gloss
At the California Dental Association meeting in May, I heard repeatedly from dentists that dental companies and dental practices spend enormous energy and money on marketing the same old stuff, with some slight variation. In the United States, we have shifted from a health and wellness focus to a cosmetic focus. We still have not convinced the majority of our society to see a dentist and get its “oral health house” in order. Our dental industry needs an awakening! We need to get back to the basics. Billions of dollars in diagnosed, untreated restorative dentistry sits in charts and needs to be placed into doctors’ schedules. Most importantly, patients need to understand what a healthy mouth is and how to maintain it.
I held a recent focus group with adults to learn more about the general public’s dental IQ; unfortunately, in this area, members of the public are not smarter than fifth graders. I learned from this focus group something that I never heard before. The primary reason members of the public don’t willingly run to their favorite dental office is that they do not want to hear what is wrong with them. They are feeling guilty about not flossing and brushing properly, and they hate being reprimanded for it. Also, they hate that they will find out that something is wrong with their health and, in turn, that it will cost lots of money to correct the problem…and it will hurt, too. We hear this latter complaint all the time.
This was the first time I really felt like we as an industry could shift our marketing to drive, not drag, patients into our offices. For the first time in a long time I heard real patients provide a real gift in terms of how to address them and their primary concerns.
I immediately mobilized the NextLevel Practice marketing department to communicate in a new way. The message from doctors to their potential new patients is this: “We start with finding what is right about you and your smile. Then we take the time to listen to your goals, and we make recommendations on what is missing (not what is wrong) to reach your goals.” It sounds subtle, but patients hear it very differently. It addresses the heart of why they resist going to the dentist in the first place.
PATIENTS WANT THE TRUTH
Patients and dentists are cynical, overcommunicated, oversupplied, and overstimulated. Trust in advertising is at an all-time low—even marketing experts will tell you that. Patients want the truth, but some dentists and dental companies are not delivering the truth about patients’ total oral health. Although most people are aware of the necessity of proper daily tooth brushing and flossing, few people realize that clean teeth and healthy gums can protect against a wide array of serious health problems.
Research shows that there may be a link between oral diseases and other health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, as well as preterm and low-birthweight babies. While this research is ongoing, increasing evidence shows that a healthy mouth is an important part of a healthy life. If more people realize the consequences of not taking care of their teeth and gums, then they will call a dentist today. Still, most Americans have not been to a dentist in the past year.
Healthy teeth and gums let us talk, smile, and laugh without embarrassment. That’s reason enough to take care of our oral health. But as medical science reaffirms that oral health and overall body health are indeed connected, there’s more reason than ever to get dental checkups every 6 months or to see a dentist promptly if someone has a problem.
This alone, if properly communicated to patients and the general public, would dramatically improve the overall heath of our society; most people who are educated about disease prevention would see their doctors.
A great example of this is the breast cancer awareness campaign. This awareness campaign has millions of women seeing their doctors for breast exams. If we all educate our existing dental patients and we also educate the general population about the importance of maintaining oral health, then we can not only improve oral health but also prevent many other critical diseases.
Dentists can recognize signs of leukemia and oral cancer, an extremely dangerous and disfiguring disease. Diagnosing cancer is just the beginning. Dentists can also spot signs of gastrointestinal problems, skin diseases, auto-immune diseases, diabetes, and more. Since people typically visit their dentists more often than they visit other doctors, that can lead to early diagnosis and early treatment. This means that a dentist can do much more than save someone’s teeth and gums. Dentists can save lives. Therefore, it is not only important to educate the public about the importance of oral health, but it is more critical to educate existing patients who do visit dental offices about the relationship of overall body health to oral health. We find that a large percentage of dentists aren’t sharing this education and message. I know dentists have bills to pay and tons of patients to see, but this educational task can be delegated to hygienists, who have a captive audience and patient trust.
Now let’s talk about patients’ insurance coverage. Dental insurance companies are controlled by the benefit plans employers purchase for their employees. More and more employers are reducing benefits. Insurance policies aren’t covering the treatment that is needed, and dentists cannot profitably deliver services at the fees these plans pay. Thus, some dentists aren’t presenting complete treatment plans because they don’t want to be rejected.
Patients don’t accept treatment plans because there is a lack of understanding about oral healthcare and a lack of knowledge regarding the consequences if oral health problems are left untreated. As an industry, we have not done a good job of educating patients so they understand the importance of having a healthy mouth. Again, set up your hygiene department as a patient education machine. (Read Chapter 4 in my book Million Dollar Dentistry, “What You Really Should Be Doing With Your Dental Hygienist.”)
This vicious cycle is the source of our dental industry challenges. Therefore, patients are becoming numb about their oral healthcare, and, frankly, so are many dentists. As a result, dentists don’t have the necessary financial resources to purchase the latest dental technology—both high-tech equipment and practice development services—to help patients become healthier and receive premier service.
We need to transform our approach and get everyone to listen to a new message. We need to educate existing dental patients and the general public about the importance of having a healthy mouth. We need to take control of the root cause of why the dental industry has stagnated and not gone to the next level.
Introducing a new initiative, we at NextLevel Practice have developed “Healthy Mouth, Healthy Practice, Healthy Lives.”
Healthy Mouth. We believe there is a huge opportunity to have all your patients achieve and maintain a healthy mouth. It is amazing to see how many dentists are gun-shy about presenting all the care a patient needs. I can empathize. If I was told “no” or received resistance in every interaction over so many years, then I would be gun-shy, too. The reason this has happened and why we have become so insurance driven is that there was no system to assist the patient to buy dentistry. Think about it…when was the last time you bought something that you didn’t think you needed, was going to cost you thousands of dollars, and was going to be an uncomfortable experience that took lots of time away from the things you truly enjoy?
Healthy Practice. Your practice becomes very healthy (and wealthy) because you are helping people overcome their misunderstanding and fears of dentistry. You will transform the millions of dollars of dentistry that is sitting in your charts by putting it into your schedule.
Healthy Lives. You and your team will lead very healthy lives because you will enjoy the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment knowing you are making a difference for your patients and each other. Most importantly, you will live your ideal life right now, not “someday when...” Everyone—doctors, team members, and patients—will have healthier lives.
We also need a “pull-versus-push” marketing approach similar to what the pharmaceutical industry did with its marketing and sales dilemma. Pharmaceutical companies weren’t able to get to the doctors to introduce their products as they once did in the past. Doctors could not afford to lose any time away from patients due to changes in insurance fees and higher malpractice insurance costs. Therefore, the pharmaceutical companies started to educate the public about their products and had the public ask the doctors about products. We can achieve similar results by educating the public about the importance of having a healthy mouth and the impact it has on overall health.
In order to transform the dental industry, we need to start educating each patient about the importance of a healthy mouth. Not only will we educate patients, but they will discuss this with their families and friends. In our marketing to new patients we need to let the patient know we are going to find out what is right, listen to his or her goals, and make recommendations on what is missing to achieve those goals. Finally, all dental suppliers need to promote the following message to the general public in their communications and marketing materials: “See Your Dentist for a Healthy Mouth and a Healthy Life.” By just doing these few things, we can take the dental industry to the next level.
My request to you is to communicate with and educate everyone on the importance of a healthy mouth. Please send us your ideas and thoughts to strengthen our mission. Be healthy.