Challenges raised by rise of teledentistry

The announcement that the “teledentistry pioneer”, SmileDirectClub, is opening ‘SmileShops’ in locations in the UK and Ireland cannot have by passed any thinking dentist.

A slick, well-written press release made it easy for subeditors to cut and paste. The tone and content shifts the focus from those boring places where people can obtain specialised dental advice and treatment; commonly known as dental practices. That these businesses comply with regulations and educational standards is neither here nor there.

The release states that SmileDirectClub’s mission is “to democratise access to safe, affordable and convenient teeth straightening solutions through doctor-directed remote clear aligner therapy”.

“We believe everyone deserves a smile they love,” says Alex Fenkell, co-founder of SmileDirectClub. Of course every dental health professional has been struggling for years wondering how they should help their patients.

The evangelising feel continues: “Our mission is to help people unleash the power of their smile and positively impact their place in the world. The confidence that comes from having a great smile is transformative to every aspect of your life. The time is right to expand our mission to the UK to give more Britons the confidence that comes from a straighter, brighter smile.”

So, another company helping the dentally challenged general public to get just the treatment they need to improve their appearance on Instagram…and all for just £1499…

“…licensed dentists and orthodontists customise each patient’s treatment plan and manage their patients’ care from initial diagnosis through [to] the conclusion of treatment, monitoring care along the way with remote check-ins every 90 days to allow patients to avoid the hassle of scheduling frequent visits to a doctor’s office…”

Heaven forbid that people might have to visit a trained and registered dentist to ensure no harm was being done.

What should you do in the face of this challenge?

Be aware. This is a logical extension of the spread of aligner therapy which has removed the near monopoly for “tooth straightening” from control of specialists and into general practice. If you have a practice which depends upon a regular throughput of aligner patients not only for jam, but also bread and butter, then be prepared to fight back. Take a long hard look at your marketing and ensure that you are perceived as an expert, who is going to be around in another decade, is experienced and can offer a broad range of skills.

Focus on relationships. SmileDirect appeals to transactional customers. Success in dentistry, as in all good businesses, is built on relationships. Ensure that you understand the difference between the two.

Transactional patients are primarily interested in price; if they can find something cheaper, they will move. They exhibit little or no loyalty, and believe that the internet or a catalogue will give them all the information they need. Easy marketing hits appeal to them.

They provide little profit, so be prepared to pile high and sell cheaply if you go into this market. Always seeking a deal, they will watch your business go bust because you weren’t cheap enough.

Relationship patients seek trust, they become lifetime patients and supporters. They want the familiar and the reliable in people and products. They will pay more because they value the relationship, they find it emotionally tiring to shop around. Long and medium term they are highly profitable and are the core of a professional business.

Know your patients. Those three little words are the difference between success and failure, and between happiness and misery in dentistry. Ensure that they wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else by knowing not only what they need but also what they want. The market has changed profoundly – if it hadn’t, we wouldn’t be talking about SmileDirect. For generations dentists reacted to disease. Bad tooth? Fill or remove. Too many gaps? Fill the spaces. Over a generation we have become more proactive. Dentists and their teams help their patients to keep their teeth, to maintain them and to have greater expectations. By raising our patients’ ‘dental IQ’ we encourage them to have and to share their aspirations.

It can be very easy to presume what your patient wants; like any relationship it needs work.

Know yourself. The phrase “low hanging fruit” when applied to business means those goals that are easier to achieve than others. However, it has been used to encourage dentists to get involved in ‘easy sales’. It doesn’t necessarily apply to treatments that are relatively expensive but can be very profitable.

Quality of care cannot be measured on a spreadsheet and most dentists, no matter how closely they watch their Key Performance Indicators, will always want to be able to look themselves in the mirror at the end of the day.


Alun K Rees BDS is The Dental Business Coach. An experienced dental practice owner who changed career, he now works as a coach, consultant, trouble-shooter, analyst, speaker, writer and broadcaster. He brings the wisdom gained from his and others’ successes to help his clients achieve the rewards their work and dedication deserve.

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Published: 5 November, 2019 at 07:08
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