Dentistry could use a makeover

By Helaine Smith, DMD, MBA

June 15, 2009 -- Editor's note: Helaine Smith's column, The Mouth Physician, appears regularly on the advice and opinion page, Second Opinion.

When I began branding my practice in 2000 as a cosmetic practice and educating patients on what a new smile could do for them, it was exhausting and time-consuming. My office manager would spend at least 20 minutes with the potential patient discussing what all was involved and building value.

“We need a modern ad campaign that shows the public how wonderful dentistry is.”

My life became much easier when the TV show "Extreme Makeover" aired. Patients started calling and asking if I did DaVinci veneers. At the same time, beauty magazines began including articles on veneers, and dentistry was always mentioned. In addition, the Las Vegas Institute (LVI) launched a national branding campaign, including full-page ads in People magazine and numerous TVcommercials.

Finally, the public understood the importance of a nice smile and seemed to have learned what cosmetic dentistry was all about. Patients were coming in wanting a smile makeover. My job of educating consumers about veneers was over, as they were now being reached by the media. A relatively small group of LVI docs ran a successful national campaign that effectively reached the consumer.

Soon after, the Internet exploded and became the main source of information for dental patients. Dental laboratories devoted part of their Web sites to patient education, and, amazingly, patients began asking for Empress veneers by name.

Today, veneers and cosmetic makeovers are mainstream, and the dialogue I have with potential cosmetic patients is much different than nine years ago. The access we have now to information is mind-boggling, and it has greatly influenced how we as consumers go about our decision-making process. While browsing the Internet, I often click on topics about how to live longer, and I am amazed and delighted that almost all health-related topics include references to the importance of dental health. This is great for the dental community because the public is being educated about the connection between oral health and overall health.

But here is my frustration: Look at the power of the media and the Internet and the success LVI had in educating the public on veneers just a few short years ago. Why doesn't the dental community launch a similar campaign to remind people to get regular dental checkups? Why are we not joining together as a professional group and doing more to educate the public about periodontal disease and its link to heart disease and diabetes?

Education is key

The other night I attended a Red Sox game in Boston. Before the game started, the announcer read a public service announcement from the American Academy of Dermatology about the relationship between sunscreen and skin cancer. The jumbo screen showed a picture of the chief of dermatology at a local hospital while the announcer told us why it was important to use sunscreen. And this was at a night game!

Why don't our dental societies do something similar on the importance of oral cancer screenings? We need to educate the public about all the advances in and importance of oral health.

The media only seems to cover dentistry when a child dies because of a tooth infection, or to talk about whether our billings are down during this recession. We are often portrayed as money-hungry, selfish people, and cosmetic dentistry is seen as "superficial," when in reality we are restoring health and function to people's mouths.

We need a modern ad campaign that shows the public how wonderful dentistry is and highlights the free dental services so many dentists provide, such as the national Give Kids A Smile program sponsored by the ADA. Our profession is extremely generous with our skills and time. As a whole, we give back to our communities more than most professionals. And yet, this philanthropy goes unnoticed. Instead, we get pelted with cheap shots about how we "make too much money" (even the Wall Street Journal ran a story about this).

We have slipped in the rankings over the years as trustworthy and admired professionals. We need a campaign to restore our image, educate the public on modern dentistry, and promote the importance of oral health.

Not promoting ourselves and educating the public is hurting our profession. Just look at Minnesota and the midlevel practitioners. It will be easier for future legislation to be passed in all states allowing midlevel practitioners do dentistry because organized dentistry has not been more proactive in educating the public that what we do requires advanced training. We need the public to value us as educated physicians.

If we do not stake our ground through public campaigns and ban together as a strong, unified voice, unqualified people in power will stake our ground for us. Between them and the insurance companies, the future of modern dentistry could be bleak indeed.

The comments and observations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or admonishment of any particular idea, vendor, or organization.

Copyright © 2009


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