Sarah Ide and Eric Easson explain the factors to consider when thinking about how to ethically market your practice.
The avenues for promoting your dental practice have widened in recent years. While word-of-mouth remains a common source for patients, many practices are using social media and online advertising to market their services.
When promoting a practice, you may be relying on advice provided by individuals or organisations involved in business promotion, who are not registered dental professionals.
Practice owners need to carefully oversee and take responsibility for promotional or patient communication.
This is because the people providing advice might not be aware of the legal and ethical restrictions involved.
Ethical marketing courses can often focus on maximising income. Following this advice without careful planning could lead to over promising and under delivering.
Instead, the DDU advises members to ensure treatment offered can be provided with a positive outcome and to prepare the patient with realistic expectations.
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 photographs showing only their teeth, you must still get the patient’s consent, 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 to monitor, or withdraw if required.
Use of treatment co-ordinators
There has been a general increase in the use of treatment coordinators, who may not be registered healthcare professionals. When explaining the treatment available, it is possible that a treatment coordinator may inadvertently provide inappropriate clinical advice or misleading information.
The DDU advises that, where possible, patient enquiries are dealt with by an appropriately trained staff member and that any clinical advice is given directly to the patient by either the dental professionals who will be providing the treatment or the person responsible for the treatment plan.
This enables clear communication of the treatment goals, risks, benefits, possible complications and costs involved with the intention of avoiding any misunderstanding.
It is tempting to apply the same ‘before and after’ photographs to all aesthetic procedures you introduce to your practice. 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 (ASA rule 12.12). However, if you offer POMs as well as other injected treatments, 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 that could be seen as misleading and to put the interests of patients above your own.
In general, the GDC disapproves of the use of 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 lists on which their names 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.
ASA suggests the safest and simplest way to avoid confusing consumers is 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.
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.
In the DDU’s experience, difficulties can arise when a patient has bought a promotional voucher before a consultation and the dental professional then discovers the patient is inappropriate for the pre-purchased treatment, 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.
For more information visit www.theddu.com.
Sarah Ide has recently given up part-time clinical practice in order to concentrate on a full-time role as a dentolegal adviser at the DDU. Sarah qualified from Guy’s Hospital in 1992 and following house officer positions at Guy’s she entered general practice. She also has an MSc in aesthetic dentistry from King’s.
Eric Easson combines his work as a dentolegal adviser for the DDU with working in general practice and as a clinical teaching fellow at Manchester University. Eric qualified in 2001 at Manchester University, gained the MFGDP (UK) in 2006 and a masters in medical law (LLM) in 2015.