While, arguably, good old-fashioned 'word of mouth' referrals remain the most reliable source of new patients – the lifeblood of any dental practice – the digital age has provided a plethora of opportunities for practices to reach not only potential new patients, but also to provide existing patients with information. It is a generally accepted business principle1 that the cost of acquiring a new customer is several times that of retaining an existing one and so, while to seek new patients is understandable, the importance of maintaining high levels of service to existing patients should never be forgotten.
When advertising or promoting a practice, compliance with the GDC's guidance on advertising is essential. Standards for the Dental Team 1.3.3 states that: 'You must make sure that any advertising, promotional material or other information that you produce is accurate and not misleading, and complies with the GDC's guidance on ethical advertising.'
Central to this guidance are the requirements for registrants to avoid any offer or claim which could be seen as misleading and to put the interests of patients above their own or their business. In general, the GDC disapproves of the use of superlatives or 'grandiose' statements to describe the services offered. Dentists cannot use the words 'specialist', 'specialises' or 'specialising' when referring to themselves or their practice unless they, and any other dentists in the practice, are on a GDC specialist list, and then only in relation to the particular specialist list(s) upon which their name(s) are entered.
Patients need to understand precisely what information will be retained, displayed or published, where and when.
Patient photographs and testimonials
Consent for the use of confidential patient information, such as photographs or testimonials, in marketing material should be contemporaneous and specific. Patients need to understand precisely what information will be retained, displayed or published, where and when, who will see it and the likely consequences. Even if the patient cannot be identified, their consent should still be sought.
The patient should not be identifiable unless absolutely necessary, even if the patient consents to the use of patient identifiable material. The patient must know that they can withdraw their consent at any time, and be able to do so. Adherence to this requires that the practice maintains control of the information and for that reason particular care should be taken with online material, where this may be more difficult to monitor and enforce.
Although the GDC permits dental professionals to offer practice promotions, discount vouchers have drawn critical attention from the GDC, and the DDU has in the past advised members about this type of promotional activity. In general, the GDC would not disapprove of incentives, provided the conditions attaching to them are abundantly clear, none of the content is potentially misleading, and any offer made is honoured in full.
Offering gifts to patients who refer others is fraught with practical dento-legal problems and risks. Perhaps the most insurmountable of these is patient confidentiality. Just a patient's name and the fact they are a patient, is confidential. To pass a gift to patient A for recommending patient B, would involve breaching the confidentiality of both patients. The DDU would, therefore, strongly advise against such an approach.
Legal, decent, honest, truthful…
All marketing material must conform to the Code published by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which enforces the Code, can demand the withdrawal of adverts. Offenders can also be referred to the Office of Fair Trading. The ASA has previously ruled against dentists using the title 'Dr' in any promotional material, on the basis that this could cause confusion with medical practitioners.
To avoid misunderstandings and complaints it is vitally important that marketing and advertising information is regularly checked and updated. A recent undercover investigation by the consumer organisation Which? reported that almost 40% of dental practices listed on the NHS Choices website as offering NHS services did not offer its reporters an NHS appointment when contacted. While there may be a number of reasons for this, the findings were negatively reported in a subsequent newspaper article in The Daily Telegraph (June 16th 2015) whose headline read 'Dentists falsely advertise NHS slots then refuse to offer appointments'. Articles such as this demonstrate the potential of inaccurate information to influence negative public perception of an individual practice or the wider profession.
In summary, while the GDC acknowledges that advertising and marketing material can be of assistance to patients in making informed choices about their dental care, it is important that such information is carefully considered and regularly reviewed. Misleading, or potentially misleading, information may give a negative impression of the practice, frustrating its very purpose and having the potential to give rise to complaints, either directly to the practice or to regulatory bodies.
Members are advised to test promotional material against the current guidance and standards in force at the time and, if in any doubt, to contact DDU for specific advice.