The avenues for promoting your dental practice have widened somewhat in recent years, and whilst word-of-mouth referrals remain a common source of patients, rapidly advancing digital technologies have opened new avenues for communication with patients both old and new.
When using digital technology to promote a practice many registrants rely on advice provided by individuals or organisations involved in business promotion, often in combination with non-registrant members of the dental team. The people providing advice might not be aware of the restrictions surrounding current guidance and compliance with data protection, confidentiality and the code of practice as published by the Committee of Advertising Practice.
There is therefore a need for the practice owner to carefully oversee, and take responsibility for, any such promotional or patient communication in advance of information being released.
There has been a general increase in the use of treatment coordinators, who may themselves be non-registrants. When explaining the treatment available at a particular practice, it is possible that a treatment coordinator may inadvertently provide inappropriate clinical advice or misleading information.
It may be preferable that patient enquiries are dealt with by an appropriately trained and experienced staff member and that any clinical advice is given directly to the patient by either the registrant who will be providing the patient's treatment or the person who is responsible for the treatment plan.
This enables clear communication of the treatment goals, risks, benefits, possible complications and costs involved at the outset with the intention of avoiding any misunderstanding.
Information provided to registrants at ethical marketing courses can often focus on maximising income and encourage registrants to promote the more profitable areas of their practice. Following this advice without careful planning could lead to someone over promising and under delivering.
It would be much better to offer treatment that can be provided with confidence of a positive outcome and to prepare the patient with realistic expectations.
Practicalities of promotion
When it comes to promoting your practice, social media platforms and digital marketing tools are arguably essential given the ease with which other practices can also advertise and compete for a share of the market.
However, while practices can benefit from this fast, inexpensive form of communication, taking too casual an approach to using social media has the potential to harm a dentist-patient relationship - by a misunderstanding, or through an inadvertent breach of confidentiality.
The simplest way of demonstrating your work is with photographs, but it's important to remember that these still form part of a patient's clinical records. Although you might think it unlikely they would recognise clinical photographs showing only their teeth, you must still get the patient's consent for their use in marketing material, and this consent must be specific for the marketing you plan to use.
Patients also need to understand precisely how their information will be used, and that they can withdraw their consent at any time. This requires that the practice keeps control of the information, but the ability to share posts on social media mean this can be difficult for dental professionals to monitor, or withdraw if required.
Patients also need to understand precisely how their information will be used, and that they can withdraw their consent at any time.
It is tempting to apply the same 'before and after' photographs to all aesthetic procedures you introduce to your practice, such as injectable facial aesthetic treatments. However, the use of before and after photographs for these procedures is likely to be interpreted by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) as an efficacy claim, which is not permitted and should be avoided in any marketing.
Also remember that prescription-only medicines (POMs) cannot be advertised to the public; this includes botulinium toxin (ASA rule 12.12). However, if you offer POMs as well as other injected treatments, they suggest you may advertise using terms such as 'cosmetic fillers' or 'injected fillers'.
Accuracy of information
When advertising or promoting a practice, compliance with the GDC's Guidance on Advertising is essential. Central to this guidance are the requirements to avoid any offer or claim which could be seen as misleading and to put the interests of patients above your own or your business.
In general, the GDC disapproves of the use of superlatives or grandiose statements to describe the services offered. You cannot use the words 'specialist', 'specialises' or 'specialising' when referring to yourself or your practice unless you, and any other dentists in the practice, are on a GDC specialist list, and then only in relation to the particular specialist list(s) on which their name(s) are entered.
Particular care is needed when referring to yourself as providing injectable aesthetic treatments. Since 1995 the GDC has allowed dentists to use the title 'Dr' provided it is made clear that this is a courtesy title only and it is not otherwise implied they are qualified to carry out medical procedures.
The ASA does advise that care is taken not to imply a general medical qualification is held if it is not. They suggest the safest and simplest way to avoid confusing consumers is that if advertisers don't possess a general medical qualification, they should not call themselves 'Dr'.
Sweetening the deal
Although the GDC allows 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 attached to them are absolutely clear, none of the content is potentially misleading, and any offer made is honoured in full.
Difficulties can arise when a patient has bought a promotional voucher before a consultation with the dentist, who may discover at the patient examination that the pre-purchased treatment is inappropriate for them, or that they need extensive work in advance.
To avoid misunderstandings and complaints it is vitally important that marketing and advertising information is regularly checked and updated.
Online criticism and negative comments
Although an increased online presence can be positive for your practice, it also adds potential avenues for patients to express their dissatisfaction.
It is always disappointing to read negative comments, particularly when they can be seen by colleagues and other patients. But while it may be difficult to do so, responding in a positive manner can be viewed favourably by other readers.
Thanking patients for their comments, apologising if they are not happy with the service or treatment they have received, and encouraging them to contact the practice to discuss any concerns so you can try to improve your services can demonstrate you are reasonable and professional. Nevertheless, it is important to remember your duty of confidentiality when replying to posts.
For more detailed information on responding to online criticism, and to earn one hour of CPD, read the accompanying article in this issue of the DDU journal.
Dr Sarah Ide
Sarah qualified from Guy's Hospital in 1992. Following house officer positions at Guy's she then entered general practice. She has an MSc in aesthetic dentistry from King's, and has recently given up part-time clinical practice in order to concentrate on a full-time role as a dento-legal advisor at the DDU.
See more by Dr Sarah Ide
Eric qualified in 2001 at Manchester University, gained the MFGDP (UK) in 2006 and a Masters in Medical Law (LLM) in 2015. As well as being a dento-legal adviser for the DDU, he works in general practice and as a clinical teaching fellow at Manchester University.
See more by Eric Easson