Your reply to Readers Digest

If you haven`t read it by now, you`ve certainly heard about it. Maybe your patients have called about it. Perhaps a conscientious few have even sent you a copy of it. Yes, I`m talking about, "How Honest are Dentists," a self-described expose published in the February 1997 issue of Reader`s Digest.

The magazine article made us look bad, but our response can be a public relations coup.

Roger Levin, DDS

If you haven`t read it by now, you`ve certainly heard about it. Maybe your patients have called about it. Perhaps a conscientious few have even sent you a copy of it. Yes, I`m talking about, "How Honest are Dentists," a self-described expose published in the February 1997 issue of Reader`s Digest.

This article is the proverbial bombshell - and it just exploded a few feet from every dental office in the nation. However, you can emerge unscathed if you defuse it properly.

This is called crisis management. And this, among many other things, is my business. If you want to continue to prosper in these increasingly challenging times, it will become part of your business, too.

But first, a little background.

The 51/2-page story - with a cover headline, "How Dentists Rip Us Off," that screams across a good third of the magazine`s front page - addresses the disparity in treatment fees among dental professionals. The antagonistic intent is clear.

After engaging a panel of dentists to assess the health of his mouth and the cost of necessary treatment, the author, William Ecenbarger, visited 50 dental practices in 28 states to compare fees with the estimate already attained. Recommend-ed treatment and associated fees both varied considerably.

You know as well as I that many things influence a clinician`s treatment plan and its cost, few of which the author took into consideration. The scope of recommended treatment, the quality of services rendered, the geographic location in which the dentist practices, the amenities provided, the experience and expertise of the dentist, the technological innovations employed in the diagnostic and treatment processes, and the safety standards to which the practice adheres - it is critical that all these factors are understood before determining the validity of the author`s claims.

There was a nod, if an unintentional one, to the difference between a restorative treatment plan and a comprehensive cosmetic treatment plan, but this crucial issue was never explored in depth. At no point was the reader given a clue as to why the original panel of dental experts - who provided the benchmark fee estimate - was chosen, nor did Mr. Ecenbarger ever question the subsequent dentists he visited about their fees.

However, I would be remiss if I didn`t admit that even I found some clinical discrepancies and fee estimates disconcerting. While I can attribute these to the fact that, as with professionals in any industry, dentists have different levels of expertise and varying standards of care, patients will not be calmed so easily.

By saturating your patient base with diplomatically-worded, professional material addressing the article, you convey your message to everyone who needs to hear it. Sure, you run the risk of alerting people to the article who might never have come across it. Don`t worry. By communicating preemptively to these patients, you will appear caring and proactive. No harm done.

Think about it: How Honest Are Dentists? might just open up an avenue of communication with patients you may otherwise never have pursued. If you handle the story properly, you might actually enjoy a closer relationship with patients.

One last bit of advice - don`t overreact. Yes, the article is unwelcome, and it requires a quick, effective response. But as bad PR goes, it`s a far cry from the Tylenol-tampering scare and the Exxon oil spill of years past.

It is not the first, nor will it be the last, bad press the profession will experience. But just because we no longer are untouchable doesn`t mean that there is a media conspiracy against dentistry. This is simply your initiation into the world of business. Learn from it.

I wish you success as you address these issues.

`Quick and dirty strategies` for countering negative press

So how do you defuse this situation? If you`ve read any of The Levin Group`s practice-building newsletters, you`re familiar with our Action Guides - quick and dirty strategies broken down into manageable steps. So here is it - your Action Guide for maintaining fantastic patient relations and enjoying terrific case acceptance in the midst of artillery fire.

1. Arm yourself. If you haven`t done so already, read the article. You cannot effectively discuss something you know little or nothing about. The fact that you have heard about it doesn`t count. Get a copy from the newsstand, the drug store, your father, your aunt, your neighbor. Reader`s Digest has one of the highest circulation rates in the country. Someone you know is bound to have a copy. Of course, the access applies equally to your patients. A good many of them have read it or will read it. Do the same. Reread it, if necessary.

2. Don`t treat patients like the enemy. If you treat them as such, they will be. Patients - maybe many, maybe just a few- will confront you about the article. Understand their cause for concern. What if this article dealt with auto mechanics instead of dentists? Wouldn`t you mention the piece the next time someone from the auto body shop told you the overhaul was going to cost $4,650?

Be patient and empathic. Tell patients that you identify with their concerns and that you are more than willing to take all the time necessary to answer their questions. When a patient does express concern, follow up with a letter acknowledging the conversation and relating your availability to discuss the issues further should he or she wish.

3. Do not launch a counterattack. If you overreact, if you initiate a rebuttal campaign against Reader`s Digest, if you attack the author - his veracity, his intelligence, his naivete, his sources - you will look defensive and, therefore, you will look guilty.

4. Maintain your ground - don`t retreat. Never apologize for your fees. While maintaining stringent clinical, technological, safety, and patient-service standards take time, effort, and, of course, money, do not play the fee-justification game. Your practice is your business. And you have every right to make it a profitable one. The harder you work, the better your patient service, the better trained your staff, and the better your equipment, the higher your profit potential. This is nothing to be ashamed of.

5. Put on your battle gear and man the trenches. No, this is not a contradiction of number three. For every patient who questions you about the Reader`s Digest article, there will be many, many more who will read it and not say a word. If is precisely these patients who pose the biggest threat. Patients who confront you afford you the opportunity to effectively combat the issues raised and offer reassurance regarding your honesty, compassion, skill, and training. Those who say nothing likely will have the very same concerns as those who voice them. They simply offer you not inlet to provide similar reassurances.

Patient materials soothe patients` concerns about article

While you don`t want to debunk the article issue by issue, you must prepare sufficient materials to quell patients` fears and stem their concerns. It is most tangibly in this capacity that The Levin Group saw its clients through this crisis. Within a week of February`s Reader`s Digest hitting the newsstands, we sent three things to each client with instructions on their use:

1. Questions and Answers - Several of the most commonly-asked questions were posed and answered (Why do fees vary so much among dentists? How do I know your fees are fair?).

Remember, you are not the only person in the office who will be asked about the article. Your front-desk coordinator, scheduling coordinator, and financial coordinator are your front lines. They will be asked questions, as well, and uniformity of response is key.

Keeping a list of questions and answers by each phone in the office ensures that everyone is fully equipped and prepared to handle incoming phone calls efficiently and effectively.

2. Fact Sheet - Our one-page fact sheet acknowledges the article, addresses in detail the issue of fees - disparity, and provides a paragraph that each client may customize with a brief biography highlighting years in practice, awards, honors, distinctions, and professional memberships. This last paragraph shifts the focus away from the disparaging story and onto the clinician`s talent and skill.

Everything you send to patients should do the same. Patients most likely will remember the last thing they read. Don`t you want it to be flattering?

3. Press Release - If printed in your local media, a well-written press release likely will generate goodwill among a large patient - and non-patient- base. It is a fabulous vehicle with which you can simultaneously respond to the article, appeal to potential patients, and subtly promote your practice.

But don`t overdo it. Remember, you`re acting on behalf of your patients, not yourself.

Dr. Roger Levin is founder and president of The Levin Group, a national, dental-management and marketing-consulting firm. He can be reached at (410) 486-1089.

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