What you read from me here is a big push against the current of popular marketing theory – that we dentists need to appear cool and current to the public and that we need to embrace social media in all its permutations because, after all, so many people (we are told through social media) are having wonderful success “connecting.”

You see, I don’t think the question is, “How do we enhance our message in order to attract patients?” The real question in my mind we should be asking is, “How do we return to the compelling message of dental health?” By attempting to be like other businesses, we often lose what is most unique about who we really are, and that would be professionals within the field of dentistry.

Certainly people need to find us in the market place, but it won’t be because we have the biggest spread in a magazine, or because we have the most followers on Twitter.

I take that back.

A few might.

They may be caught up in celebrity spin, but most normal people see past this and really want to know if we are (1) nice people and (2) competent at treating the dental problems they are facing.

Go ahead and have an announcer claim that you are a nice person and competent in what you do while they are waiting on hold, but I really think they would appreciate (1) not being left on hold too long and perhaps a little soft music to indicate that they have not been cut off (note to self on this one). I guess I don’t buy the idea that telling people what should be obvious is effective marketing. Certainly it sells product for those in the market-the-dentist business, but in the end, I think we just look like everyone else who hires a “consultant” to think for us in these areas.

My point is this. I have come to the very obvious conclusion that our message of health in dentistry, and specifically to my area of expertise, with regards to periodontal disease, is compelling enough without further hype.

Our problem seems to be that we have either forgotten the message, never really been inspired by the message ourselves or have grown weary in attempting to explain it against the current cultural flow. When we put aside the central message of dental health and what it means to patients as the focal point of our dental practices, the void is replaced by fluff. We then tend to focus of externals as the biggest deal rather than the meanings that underpin our reasons for practicing dentistry in the first place and why patients need us. And one of the biggest problems when we end up losing meaning and then focus on externals is that other people turn into objects or obstacles.

Here are components of the current cultural flow as it infects our dental practices. I frankly believe what I list here are some of the common current beliefs about how best to practice dentistry.

1. Don’t waste time talking to patients. Procedures are where we make money.

2. People are generally not very bright. They have been dumbed down by video games, MTV, and movies. No one reads anymore. Everyone gets their information in sound bites. Trying to inform and educate are a waste of time.

3. People who work in dentistry need only know what their particular function is as it relates to the activities of others.

a. If you are a dental assistant, you need to know dental assisting. Don’t cross over to understand dental disease and treatment options, that’s the dentist’s domain.

b. If you are at the front desk, you are there simply to schedule, manage insurance and collect money. Your job description does not require knowing much about dental disease and treatment options except as they are listed on forms you submit or need in order to work up fees and payment arrangements. It shouldn’t matter to you if your dentist under- or over-treats patients. That’s the dentist’s problem, not yours, which means you should be perfectly comfortable being kept in the dark as to why and how the dentist treats patients.

c. Even dentists are advised to stick to dentistry and let others manage the business side. They didn’t learn much business in school and will just screw things up unless they go out and get an MBA degree. Smart dentists are those who have advisers show them how to move through more patients with more efficiency.

4. Insurance is a poison we may have to accept. Insurance companies are too big and they have won the brainwashing battle for the patient’s mind. Our arguments for health over pocketbook are unrealistic. It is best to just go with the flow.


Let me take each one of these go-with-the-flow arguments and trash them for you.

Don’t waste time talking to patients. Procedures are where we make money.

The interpersonal bonds established between the dentist, the dental office team and the patient are the drivers of patient care. It isn’t the lighting or the music. It isn’t the coffee dispenser in the waiting room. It isn’t the snappy uniforms or the fresh cut flowers. All of these are nice touches, but unless patients are able to interact with warm blooded human beings, including the dentist, the trust that enables patients to comfortably move forward with treatment and recommend friends and family members to come into the practice will never materialize. No argument that people pay for procedures, but they only pay the significant amounts of money that keep dental offices functioning to people they get to know and trust.

People are generally not very bright.

I submit to you that the brains of most people are capable of doing any task within the dental office including the tasks of the dentist. What differentiates us has more to do with what we have been taught (or not taught) and what we believe about ourselves. I am not saying that our brains are equal in capacity, just that the capacity required to do more than we believe possible exists for each one of us. The evidence is all around that what I am saying is true, if we will choose to open our eyes. But this does not mean I can’t tell myself lies like, “People are generally not very bright,” and get my brain to go along with it. My brain trusts my words spoken to it without question. If I accept that people are not very bright (compared to me) then I will act this out. If I reject this idea, I will act this out as well and this is what it will look like. I will discover how bright people actually are and I will begin to see that they have amazing talents. In addition I will begin to appreciate the incredible brain function required in being a nice person. I will discover that there is such a thing as emotional IQ and that many in my office may likely be much more gifted than I am in developing and managing interpersonal relationships. The truly smart people in this world, are not those who understand complex formulas and equations, but the ones who have learned to be kind and giving.

People who work in dentistry need only know what their particular function is.

The default belief is that people are hired to do things, not think in certain ways. We see what this does all the time whenever we encounter someone unhappy with his or her job. They have a job, but they lack a mission, because it was either taken out of them by bosses, or it was never there in the first place. In periodontal therapy, if the patient does not assume responsibility for daily plaque control and appointment management, everything we will do for them will fail. This is because at best we control 20% of the outcome. What this means is that we within dentistry, within the dental office team, have as our primary task, to help patients understand and accomplish the tasks they need to do. In this way we all take on the task of coaches and trainers, and our patients become our star athletes. If they don’t walk into a dental office where this mission is understood and acted out by the team, they will not ultimately get better, at least within this office.

Dentists should not buy into the idea that their primary role is to accomplish procedures. Their primary role is as the team leader who establishes and maintains the vision for the office. The office is an extension of the dentist’s personal beliefs about dentistry. If they have a strong conviction that they are there to help patients achieve optimum dental health, then this belief should ripple through the organization and be felt even at the front desk. The individual making appointments and discussing treatment options must understand the importance of optimum dental health, otherwise she or he will fall into the trap of agreeing with patients that insurance companies have the best interest of patients in mind.

Those employees who accept a low view of the importance of dental care and therefore enable patients to “just get by” are actually harming people. This is not to say that they can or should force people to do things they don’t want to do, but when patients willfully choose against a level of care that establishes and maintains health they should meet resistance in the eyes of the one attempting to help them obtain the care they actually need. These patients should discover that they are not speaking with a clerk or a business manager, but a dental health advocate, who cares deeply that they not harm themselves. Obviously, to be able to do this, front office personnel need to understand dentistry are a very sophisticated level. And who, within the office, is the most capable one to train them? That would be the dentist. Therefore, when dentists stay out of the business office, the business suffers. Does this mean the dentist must do a lot of training? Not necessarily. They should make sure that their people obtain the continuing education necessary not only to do their particular jobs well, but to understand and appreciate the larger picture of why good dentistry is vital to good health.

Insurance is a poison we may have to accept.

It is true that there are economic forces and realities working against optimum dental health. Some dentists counter this by simply gaming the system. If insurance companies will only pay a fraction of what quality dental care is worth, then they will make up the difference by speeding things up and seeing twice the number of patients. When we buy into the lie that size of companies really have anything to do with how people think and decide, then everyone loses. However, when we draw a line in the sand and state to our teams and to our patients that we are in practice to serve the needs of people and provide them quality care in ways they can appreciate, everyone will begin to win. We will discover that people will pay a lot more than the minimum when they are well informed by people who take the time up front to sit and listen.

In conclusion.

We have a fundamental decision to make as to what we stand for in dentistry. Based on our choice, all activities and processes within the office then follow.

Option #1. We can simply assign people tasks and tell them that they are responsible to see that those tasks are accomplished as instructed.

Option #2. We can change the thinking of our teams, who will then help us convey the importance of our health message to patients in ways they will feel important and cared for.

The second option requires an investment in time and money to help grow and mature a team that then helps grow and mature patients. If you elect to go this direction, I believe you will ultimately find your stress levels go down and your income goes up – against the norms expected for dentistry in the future.

The trend to turn dentistry into a big business by adding middle layers to the process will result in a lowering of quality dental care in general. On the other hand, if dentists and others involved in direct patient care decide to stand up and resist the temptation for easy money (which is an illusion, by the way) I believe they will discover that discerning patients will find them. The best marketing, I believe, is to treat patients the way we would want to be treated if we were in their shoes, and so may our treatment plans always reflect this.

4 Responses

  1. Hi Ben, Interesting commentary and makes me want to agree that both options are important. I feel the best “marketing” is education. When I post videos on YouTube, post comments on Facebook (I have 3 pages; me, DDS and Perioscopy), tweet or post on LinkedIn they are all about information. Some may be personal but then after all I am a person too. That affords the reader/viewer a view of a real person vs just a clinician.

    I want my staff to know their jobs, understand each others jobs and understand what we do for our patients as well. Even if they all don’t know as much in the front about what we do in the back we come across as caring. Caring about the needs of our patients, referring dentists, vendors, on down to the cleaning crew.

    If we build a culture of “caring” the marketing takes care of itself? In a way that is true AND there are ways of sharing this through the many avenues available through the internet. Because as they say: the internet is like word of mouth on steroids.

    1. Thanks John for your input. I really respect your opinion and I think what we would find in discussing this further (which I’m all for, by the way) is that we are not far off from one another as to what works and what doesn’t.
      Here is a little of the back story on how I got to be thinking about any of this in the first place.
      Because I believe, as you do in education, I am trying to figure out and develop systems to coordinate care between general dentists and specialists. This has caused me to pursue attempting to standardize periodontal therapy between the different practices. On the one hand we have specialists who know a great deal about a focused area and generalists who know a great deal about many areas of dentistry, but not normally to the level of the specialist. The objective, in my mind, is not to make them specialists but to equip them to diagnose and manage periodontal disease in a way that improves patient care and office flow. In order to do this, I have found myself speaking in different dental offices in a luncheon-for-learning format.
      It has been interesting and I have been learning a great deal.
      One of the challenges I believe I have to overcome in every dental office, including my own, is a lack of basic understanding of periodontal disease by different members of the team. This brings up a number of questions. For example, to what extent does someone at the front office need to understand periodontal disease and different treatment options?
      My short answer to this question is they need to know at least as much as patients do, and perhaps a little more.
      That’s why I am beginning to believe that the common denominator for every employee in the office is to know dentistry at least to the level of informed patients. Of course there is push back to this idea. Many do not believe it is really relevant to their jobs. I would argue that it is more relevant than they realize and the practice is suffering to the level of ignorance of employees about dentistry. Uninformed employees are unable to speak in a way that indicates they are familiar with what the best treatments for different conditions are – and when they don’t know, the patient feels justified to decide what the best treatment for a particular problem is.
      By taking this fairly strong stand when I speak I am attempting to keep the front office and assistants as interested in learning practical periodontics as dentists and dental hygienists normally are.

      1. Great insight!
        Do you have a real practice or just sit and play philosopher all day :) I just love how you think and ask questions. Do you know how different just doing this makes you?
        I don’t think a lot of us know what creates trust. Is it just the number of letters and fellowships I have after my name or is it something less tangible? Is trust earned or expected? I got into school by being focused and laser like in my thinking. What more do I need to have clients or patients accept my treatment plan?

        Have studies been done to see if there is a correlation between emotional intelligence and I.Q. Could it be that there is little relationship. If you have hired great people and they leave, could the team members just be mimicking the patients feelings about their relationships with your practice? How about your referral sources?

        If everyone who works in the field of dentistry are there for the same reason (to help our patients become healthier, bring joy to our connections with each other and to grow professionally and personally) – then don’t we all just have the same job. Equals with slightly different roles?

        I love insurance. If a patient does not care about the work we discussed then they wont bother to even ask what insurance will pay. However, if they bring-up insurance or ask any question, then they are becoming engaged. We cannot begin to deliver our care until the patient is more engaged in the outcome than we are. The questions we see as being “a pain in the a..” are actually opportunities to stay engaged and continue the conversation.

        Keep it up Ben. I sometimes hope I need a graft or some procedure you could perform just so I could get a chance to meet your team! Thanks for keeping my thinking of possibilities.

        1. Boy Murray, you packed in a lot of questions here. Each one deserves consideration. Most of them I could only speculate as to the answer. For example, your question about emotional intelligence and IQ. You also ask about motivations — how altruistic are we? This gets into economic philosophy and I would have to say, I am very free-market. My hope would be that I and the patient will both benefit from our relationship together.

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