HOW TO PROFIT FROM...cosmetic dentistry — Eliminate the 'S' word

Nov. 1, 2001
If you're among the number of dentists who feel uncomfortable with the word selling, then don't use it! Eliminate the "S" word from both your vocabulary and your dental practice.

by Tony Ratliff, DDS, MBA

If you're among the number of dentists who feel uncomfortable with the word selling, then don't use it! Eliminate the "S" word from both your vocabulary and your dental practice. Replace the "S" word with two simple words: educated motivation. "Selling" our cosmetic dental services is no more than just educating and motivating our patients.

Dentists generally do a poor job when it comes to promoting elective cosmetic services. For starters, many of us learned in dental school that people need our services — people need fillings, patients need extractions, and teeth need root canals and crowns. Because of this needs-based mentality, we find it difficult to use the words selling and dentistry in the same sentence.

However, many patients really do want our services — people generally want to save their teeth, want white fillings, and want a pretty, white smile. How many patients ask for yellow fillings in their front teeth or black fillings in their back ones? Try delivering a new immediate denture with yellow teeth. It might work perfectly, but it's probably not what the patient wants. We must realize that patients both want and need our services. As dentists, we should be proud of our abilities to develop on-the-spot treatment plans, educate patients, motivate them toward ideal treatment, and win case acceptance.

The majority of dentists and hygienists feel comfortable educating and motivating their patients on oral hygiene or home care, so why not use these same tools for your cosmetic services as well? We must educate our patients about the new restorative options and materials available in dentistry today, motivate them to seek optimal dental health, and then ask which options they prefer. It really is a simple concept — educating, motivating, and asking — but many members of the dental profession still lack confidence to recommend the best treatment to their patients, or they are too "busy" to spend the necessary time promoting optimal dental care.

I'm not proposing that you make drastic changes in the way you practice dentistry. I'm not recommending spending thousands of dollars on advanced studies, nor am I suggesting that you start doing full-mouth reconstruction or 12 veneers on every patient. I'm simply talking about upgrading and replacing some of your direct restorations with tooth-colored, lab-fabricated restorations (inlays and onlays); promoting "white fillings" and bleaching for cosmetic reasons; recommending orthodontics or aesthetic periodontal treatment; offering implants as a treatment option; and eliminating metal margins on anterior crowns. There are new ways to treat periodontal disease without surgery and better options to treat decayed or broken teeth without patching or redoing large fillings. Begin to educate your patients about the benefits of a healthy dentition, motivate them to accept the best treatment that dentistry has to offer (the kind of dentistry you would want in your own mouth), and, finally, let them decide. You'll be surprised at how many choose the better treatment. Like the Nike slogan says: "Just do it."

Every dentist is a cosmetic dentist to a certain extent. Every general dentist who has ever done a direct resin restoration or a denture could add cosmetic dentistry to the list of services he or she provides; it's just a question of how much you do and what services you offer to your patients. If you want to do more cosmetic dentistry and grow the cosmetic portion of your practice, then you must offer more cosmetic dentistry to your patients. It's that simple!

Educating our patients
Everyone agrees that patient education is the key to higher case acceptance. With a little understanding of marketing, we can improve patient education and motivation. A majority of patients have a negative perception about visiting the dentist, and dentistry has a negative position in the marketplace. According to a recent "snapshot" in USA Today, adults were asked which day they dreaded the most. Thirty-three percent answered the day they visit the dentist. Eighteen percent said Mondays, and 15 percent chose tax day.

Patients hear "root canal, crown, or extraction" and immediately think "time, pain, and cost." A root canal, crown, or extraction lacks a positive position in the majority of our patients' minds, even if they have never had one. Customers formulate certain perceptions about certain products before they ever purchase or test the product. Marketers place a lot of emphasis on positioning their products to help their customers form specific conclusions about a product or brand: Snickers satisfies, Crest fights cavities, Burger King just tastes better, and Charmin is squeezably soft.

As dentists, we must learn to educate our patients and give cosmetic services a "positive position" in their minds. Talk to your patients; use illustrations and examples to help explain today's cosmetic dental procedures. Then and only then can you change their perceptions.

Today, there are many products available that can help you better educate your patients — intraoral cameras, before-and-after photos, models, brochures, interactive patient-education systems, patient-education videos, and video imaging. Educate your patients, and you may be able to change their position and perception of the dental services you provide. Change their perceptions, and your case acceptance will increase.

Motivating our patients
Motivation begins with a practice philosophy of excellence. Educating your patients on treatment possibilities makes your cosmetic services more tangible. Unlike a lot of other products, cosmetic dentistry is basically an intangible service, because patients normally don't even see what they're buying until the final appointment. On the other hand, a new luxury car is a tangible product. You can see, touch it, smell it, and even take it for a test drive before committing to buying it. People understand tangible products and can make better decisions when purchasing them. Just by using illustrations and examples to attach more meaning to your services, you and your staff are motivating your patients to choose those services.

Beautiful smiles, before-and-after photos, and teeth-whitening material should be placed abundantly around the reception area and operatories. Invest in patient-education videos and presentations that will stimulate interest in your cosmetic services. Patients can make informed decisions about treatment after watching a video on indirect restorations or hearing about their options. After looking at pictures of "white fillings" vs. silver amalgams, don't you think they are more likely to choose the tooth-colored restorations when given a choice? We're not selling dentistry; we're just educating and motivating patients to select optimum dental care.

When I was still using amalgam in my practice, I cut out a before-and-after picture that I had found in a dental advertisement for a new resin, took it to a copy store, and had it scanned with the title "The Choice Is Yours" added. I made color copies, put them in clear frames, and placed one in each operatory. That's it; the total cost was around $30. I immediately saw an increase in the number of resins I was doing. Patients would point to the picture of the "white filling" and say, "Hey, Doc, you're going to use the 'white filling,' right?" Or they would point to the amalgam and say, "I don't want that black stuff put in my teeth." The patient knew which restoration he wanted before I even had a chance to offer an option. This small picture motivated my patients and increased my production. It was their only motivation behind requesting more resins, because I hadn't changed anything else in my practice, nor had I tried to educate them on the advantages of resin restorations. Now, we utilize intraoral cameras, picture books, videos, and patient-education material to motivate patients.

Asking our patients
Now that you and your staff have engaged in "educational motivation," you're ready for the final component to increasing the amount of cosmetic dental services delivered by your practice: asking. Yes, that's the final step, and it's all about giving people a choice. Why give people a choice? Because it gives them the feeling of being personally responsible for the decision or action, and, even more critical, provides them with a true alternative. "It was my choice; I had an alternative; and I chose the inlay because of the advantages." Just remember to give your patients an option and ask them which restoration they want.

Like many dentists, I was afraid to use the "S" word with dentistry. I assumed that patients only wanted traditional restorations. I have found it best not to assume, but to educate, motivate, and ask. A few more inlays a week, an additional six veneers, or two extra bleaching procedures will have a dramatic effect on your bottom line. These additional elective cosmetic services or "upgraded" restorations will have a cumulative effect over the course of a month or even a year. After adopting an "educated motivation" philosophy, I think you will be amazed at the number of patients who will choose elective cosmetic services when given the option.

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