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Doctors and Hospitals Take Note: Dentists Take a Public Punch for Marketing in Recession

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

Dentist flossing a fake model toothThere are several important healthcare marketing lessons hidden in the recent Los Angeles Times article titled Dentists turn to marketing after getting brush-off from patients. Although it is primarily about dentists and dental marketing in the economic downturn, the important marketing takeaways also apply to medical practices and hospitals.

We'll look past any immediate temptation to indict the article for being naive about the consequences of the nation's economic woes. Dentists, doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers are no more "guilty" of finding ways to deal with the downturn in business than your neighborhood grocery store, auto mechanic or dry cleaner. (The Times could consider the upheaval in the newspaper industry.)

It's really not surprising that the American consumer has been financially squeezed, and buying patterns for healthcare in general and dentistry in particular are, to put it mildly, painfully tight. Our previous articles about the "New Normal" speak about the stinging and lingering effects of the recession for doctors, dentists and hospitals. Coincidental to the Times publication, American Medical News reported that the Decline in Doctor Office Visits Could be Permanent.

"The number of visits patients make to physicians in a given month—a vital sign for the whole health care economy—has been declining consistently, according to multiple tracking studies, companies and researchers," writes amednews.com.

"Analysts say those numbers may not bounce back, even with health system reform. That's because a struggling economy, higher insurance deductibles, and the efforts by health plans and others to reduce utilization have altered patient patterns, perhaps permanently. Patients now often seek office visits—or any interaction with the health system—only when a problem can't be ignored."

The Times article is well worth reading. Equally worthwhile are the Reader Comments which follow the main text. Notice that there are a large number of comments, and somewhat surprisingly, many of them are negative or bitter about dentists and dentistry. (More on this in a minute.)

From a healthcare marketing point of view, dentists, physicians and hospital marketing professionals should look particularly at how these important concepts come through:

  • Dental marketing is not something new; in fact it's at an all time high. Dentists should take note that your competitors are better armed than ever, and your "friendly colleague" down the street has rolled-up his marketing sleeves to aggressively reach and attract patients.
  • Ditto for doctors and hospitals. Although this Times article holds dentists in its sights, it's not a stretch to recognize how these same "economic downturn" pressures apply to many, if not most, segments of healthcare delivery.
  • Prospective patients are fewer in number and harder to reach. Consumer patterns of "going to the dentist or doctor" have changed significantly. Purchase decisions happen more slowly (if at all), and greater value is a fundamental concern. Everyone wants their dollar to buy more...if they are going to spend anything anywhere.
  • Many old school marketing tactics don't deliver in the New Normal. Reliance on "word-of-mouth" and simply being a good dentist or a good doctor is not enough to carry the day in today's competitive environment.

Why so many negative public comments?

The fervent community feedback attached to this article is a bit of shocker in its negativity. While it's not a scientific survey, the section provides a public relations reminder of its own. Here are some examples of the dominant tone of voice:

  • "With dentists, let's be honest, there is a major problem with patient trust. I'm not sure how it got that way."
  • "When I walk into a Dr.'s office that looks like a spa, I immediately think, "he's got to pay for this somehow and it's going to be in increased prices."
  • "I have no sympathy for dentists. They have no one to blame but themselves, their expensive over-decorated offices, and their lifestyles of gluttony and excess for their financial problems."
  • "Don't believe your dentist, do your own research and find out what's out there to maintain excellent oral health and very affordably."
  • "It's not that I don't value a dentist's work. I just can't afford it."
  • "Dentist's income has dropped by 3.1%! Oh, my! People who have lost their jobs have lost 50% of their income or more."

Not all the comments about the article were negative. At least a few—like this one from the professional ranks—wrote from a higher altitude:

  • "Some of us go into such professions to make a difference in people's lives, with not only the intent of making a decent living, but also the satisfaction of helping others. I am honestly surprised and a little bit offended at all of the negative comments on here. Not everyone in healthcare is out to make a buck. If you have had a negative experience within a dental office, then simply find a new dentist that you deem honest and helpful."

As we mentioned, there's nothing scientific about this sample of public sentiments. Nevertheless, there seems to be a collective (negative) feeling that dentists—and by extension, other healthcare providers also—are overpriced and over paid.

And while this isn't a universal public attitude, it's a timely and passionate reminder for dental, hospital and healthcare marketing professionals. Individuals who are frustrated by the recession or their personal situation can also direct their anger toward the provider.

As a consequence, marketing, advertising and public relations for dental practices (and others in the healthcare delivery system) is more difficult than ever.

Editor Note: For a follow-up article, we've inquired with the American Dental Association and other sources regarding authoritative data about public attitudes and perceptions of dentists and dentistry.

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