HOW TO PROFIT FROM...the internet

Dental information is hardly a scarce resource on the Internet; the true challenge is knowing where to look. Dentists and patients have expressed a need for consolidation to make their online experiences more practical and reliable. Who really has the time to meander through every search engine, chat room, and message board to obtain the right directions?

The dawning of the dental portal

Michael J. Wissot, MBA, MIM

Dental information is hardly a scarce resource on the Internet; the true challenge is knowing where to look. Dentists and patients have expressed a need for consolidation to make their online experiences more practical and reliable. Who really has the time to meander through every search engine, chat room, and message board to obtain the right directions?

Imagine every dental Web site - be that of a dentist, a manufacturer, consultant, or supplier - as independent rooms without an entrance or exit. Visitors find themselves engulfed in a maze because of the lack of accessibility to other sites. The remedy is to empower users with the means to navigate more effectively on the Internet. Herein lies the role of a dental Web portal.

Serving as intermediaries for online traffic, Web portals direct their visitors to the proper sources in a timely manner. By definition, they create virtual doorways among fragmented Web sites. This service certainly enhances the quality of the portal itself, but it also benefits the entire dental community. The centralization of dental information creates more unity within the industry as well as fostering better public relations with the general public.

Simply put, patients are the impetus to growing a stronger Web presence for dental professionals. Even the companies that do not market products or services directly to consumers must equate value in catering to their needs.

The online consumer market is not characterized by the "computer geek" profile, rather a well-educated and sophisticated audience with higher socioeconomic backgrounds. These individuals are the most appealing patients for dentists to reach because they seek personalized care and cosmetic dentistry.

By and large, consumers have advanced their aptitude for using the Internet much faster than those in the dental community. It is hardly a surprise and certainly should not be a shame. Dental practitioners, focused on the intricate demands of dentistry and committed to their own continuing educations, have been late bloomers on the Internet. Consumers, on the other hand, have been quick to enjoy the benefits of the "information superhighway."

It is only the beginning. As patients flock to the Internet with faster DSL and cable connections, the rules are constantly changing. Consumers are more knowledgeable about their dental health options, so their expectations have risen dramatically. They enter the office already educated about adhesive dentistry, implants, and regenerative and plastic periodontics. Hence, a practice already lagging on the Internet may cause patients to question the professional`s expertise in the delivery of modern dental care.

Many consumers have discovered successful dental Web portals in search of multiple needs - finding a local dentist who uses the Internet, receiving an online consultation for a dental problem, acquiring information on dental topics, alleviating fears, and joining an online network of patients and dental professionals. The latter component is most salient because dentists must create an inclusive community on the Internet that will improve communication with existing and potential patients.

Traditional search engines that locate dentists have become adequate tools for consumers. The most popular versions are those featuring the practitioner`s e-mail address and Web site. Why? Online patients prefer to contact a prospective dentist by e-mail.

Dentists can increase their monthly referrals just by having a moderate presence on the Internet. Using e-mail, placing office listings on dental Web sites, and participating in online discussions are examples of how dental professionals can promote their practices.

Here are a few promotional tips for dental offices:

(1) Promote your practice on dental sites that are consumer-oriented. It seems simple, but many dentists spend too much time on Web sites with other dentists. Focus on the sites that interest your patients.

(2) Select a designer to build a Web site for your office. Delegate this assignment to an individual or company with cutting-edge experience on the Internet. Standard templates are adequate, but a customized site or a personalized practice profile page is far superior. A true Web site will serve as a valuable tool for communicating with your clientele.

(3) Acquire a marketable e-mail address. Whether you place it on business cards or tell your patients, your e-mail address must embody several characteristics - a succinct name that patients will remember, a name with prestige, a name that describes your vocation, and a name that gives you a professional image. Avoid faulty e-mail addresses like drjane84721@aol.com, bleedinggums@earthlink.net, drfear@juno.com, and toocooljoe@compuserve.com. Believe it or not, similar names have been used, and they give you and your profession a bad image.

(4) Use the Internet to make your practice more efficient. Although online scheduling is not yet infallible, there are several ways to funnel communication with patients. If you inform patients of your accessibility via e-mail, you can reduce the number of phone calls and, sometimes, the number of unnecessary emergency calls.

These endeavors will send a resounding message to consumers that you and your staff are available online. More importantly, it reminds patients that you will do whatever it takes to address their needs and interests.

Once dental practitioners participate on consumer-driven Web sites, a newly formed network will emerge in oral healthcare. In turn, companies can then reach the dental community in a cost-effective manner. Mass mailings will become an antiquated tool as organizations shift to targeted online advertising. As competition brews and awareness grows, Internet users will become more responsive to the best dental products and services.

Analysts estimate that 30 million users will rely on the Internet for health information in 2000. Most popular health sites do not provide dental information on the same scale as other topics. The dental community has a distinct opportunity to make its practitioners, products, and services more accessible to a vast audience.

Remember that the Internet is about building relationships, and it starts with the patients. The consumer-friendly sites are the ones where you should promote your practice.

Claim your stake now because it`s the "Wild, Wild West" all over again. The Internet has empowered all dental professionals with both a medium and voice for online communication.

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