September 1, 2005
by Debra Engelhardt-Nash
The popular television show Extreme Makeover has opened up the world of cosmetic and aesthetic dentistry to mainstream North America. Driven by aging Baby Boomers who are seeking to stay healthy and look young, the demand for cosmetic and aesthetic dentistry is increasing at an amazing rate. And shows like Extreme Makeover have shown patients what is possible, driving consumer demand for procedures such as whitening, adult orthodontia, and veneers.
Practices need to make sure they are ready to meet this demand, for many compelling reasons. Cosmetic and aesthetic procedures represent opportunities to provide more services to patients, increasing revenue potential and practice growth. These procedures typically command higher fees and typically these services are not covered by insurance. This means the fees established by the practice are not subject to adjustments to meet the restrictions of “usual and customary” fee allowances by participating insurance companies. Adding these services to treatment opportunities helps the practice utilize existing patients more effectively as well as attract more new patients to the practice. There is also an issue of losing patients and revenue if you don’t provide or promote cosmetic and aesthetic procedures. If a patient is interested in this type of dentistry, and isn’t aware you can do it for them; they may look for a practice that proactively promotes these services through advertising or on the Web or be referred by a friend or business colleague to a cosmetic and aesthetic focused practice.
Change your perspective on dentistry
Practices that routinely offer cosmetic and aesthetic dentistry have a different perspective, and make these types of procedures an integral part of their patient protocol. This perspective creates a new way of viewing recommended treatment. Because the team members have an understanding of the advantages of cosmetic and aesthetic dentistry, they often “begin with the end in mind” and not only focus on the function and health of the mouth, but also improving its appearance.
Developing a cosmetic/aesthetic practice requires commitment and focus from the doctor and involves the entire team. When you are working with a cosmetic patient, there’s more captive chair time, and the doctor must be comfortable not only doing this type of work, but also developing a new kind of patient relationship. Although you may see fewer patients per day, the amount of time spent with the patient may increase. You cannot squeeze in a cosmetic case between appointments. And, in addition to great technical skills, the doctor must also become a great listener. To make a cosmetic patient happy with the end result, you have to begin with her needs and expectations and gain a true understanding of what they are hoping to achieve. Similar to cosmetic surgery, many patients come into the practice believing cosmetic dentistry will change everything about them. Again, the doctor must be willing to spend the time and be able to have a dialogue with the patient to ensure her expectations are realistic.
The first step is patient education
Every patient, both existing and new, who walks through your front door, should be aware that you provide cosmetic and aesthetic procedures. Even though a patient has been coming to your practice for years and has never talked with you about enhancing her smile, don’t assume they are not interested. It is your job, as their healthcare partner, to make sure patients know all the options available to them that will not only help them achieve health for their mouth, but also a beautiful, younger-looking smile.
Patient education must begin the minute patients make contact with your practice. First, you introduce cosmetic and aesthetic dentistry in your practice development materials. These may include your business cards, your practice’s on-hold messaging, your Website, and all practice communication including the new patient letter, practice brochure, and email correspondence. When patients are in your practice, they are going to want to see visuals that highlight the doctor’s great work through “before and after” photos displayed in your office, provided during the treatment discussion or placed on your Website. Living testimonials of staff are also an effective way to show the possibilities and the expertise of the doctor. And finally, the best way to education patients is simply by talking to them.
Use every patient interaction to educate them on cosmetic and aesthetic procedures. Never assume that just because they haven’t specifically asked for your recommendation, they aren’t interested. Here’s an example of a patient situation that illustrates how the team can help educate patients on the cosmetic and aesthetic options available to them. Let’s take a patient who doesn’t need any additional restorative or preventative dentistry. They have taken great care of their mouth and are in the practice for their regular hygiene appointment. Normally, the hygienist or the doctor will see the patient and then send them on their way without discussing cosmetic or aesthetic possibilities, unless the patient specifically asks them for information. In a practice with a cosmetic and aesthetic focus, the following dialogue would be more common in this situation:
“Mrs. Smith, your oral health is looking great. Working in partnership, we have been able to maintain a high level of dental health. When you first came to us, we had an oral care issue that needed attention, but now you are ready to consider another level of dentistry — those procedures that can improve the appearance of your teeth and your smile. I am sure you are aware of Dr. Bradley’s excitement for new techniques and materials, and his commitment to provide his patients with the best care possible in dentistry today. May I show you some examples of what he has been doing for some of our patients?”
Get started by understanding where you are
Often practices look at their production statistics in general terms, like the number of new patients per month. But this doesn’t give you the information you need to develop the action plans that will take your practice to the next level. One of the most important statistics to monitor is the average treatment plan presented versus the average treatment plan accepted by patients. When you look at this statistic, you will be able to be more specific about the real issues and make applicable recommendations, instead of making generalized statements like “we need more patients,” “we need to up our production,” or “we need to bring up our collections,” that give no specific direction. If your average accepted treatment plan is high, say $3,000, then to increase practice production the solution may be as simple as bringing in a larger number of patients. But, if your statistics show that your average accepted treatment plan is only $400, and that 70 percent of your recommended treatment remains incomplete, you may want to look at improving treatment presentation skills, or increasing the awareness of the ability of the practice to offer comprehensive treatment. Also, consider offering patient financing programs so patients may accept more comprehensive or cosmetic treatment.
It’s important to let patients know what their options are so they can make the choice for a healthy and beautiful smile. The most popular cosmetic and aesthetic procedures are the procedures practices should consider offering first. They include whitening, veneers, and aesthetic or natural color materials. When patients need a new filling or one replaced, make sure you let them know they now have a choice in materials, and they don’t necessarily have to go with a metal. Even though insurance typically covers only standard materials, given the choice, many patients will go with the aesthetic alternative and happily pay the difference. Patients will find a way to buy what they want, especially when it is based on meeting an emotional need such as cosmetic dentistry. You
can help them by providing convenient payment options that make the experience even more comfortable and rewarding. I recommend patient financing because they offer 12 month no interest financing to the patient and you get paid right away. Your patients can get a beautiful mouth and have the opportunity to pay over time. And you get to do the higher-end dentistry that can significantly impact your practice productivity.
Marketing your cosmetic and aesthetic practice
We are so conditioned in dentistry to tell patients what they need, not asking them what they want. But, once you have the right mindset, the right protocols, team involvement, and patient education, the next step is to make sure you market your talents and services to your community. There are many effective and inexpensive ways you can market. In today’s Web-connected world, I think the Internet is the number one way to market a dental practice, especially for cosmetic and aesthetic procedures. Remember the market you are trying to attract. It’s the Baby Boomers. And statistics show that 97 percent of Boomers are on DSL! That should give you a good indication of their dependence upon the Internet for information. But remember, it’s one thing to create a Website. It’s another to make sure it can be found, so work with a service that knows how to optimize your site and place it on appropriate search engines.
Another place to market your cosmetic and aesthetic practice is high-end community magazines. Frequency is key. You cannot run one ad and expect results. So, budget for at least one quarterly placement. Becoming the authority in your community can be absolutely invaluable. You can do this by making yourself visible and available to local organizations and the press as a resource on cosmetic and aesthetic dentistry. One last point I’d like to make about marketing — remember, you don’t need to advertise a low price or a discount. Offer service, convenience, and value instead. You can even promote the availability of ‘no interest’ financing. These are the things that make a difference to time-poor, credit-dependent Baby Boomers.
Ultimately, focusing on cosmetic and aesthetic dentistry is a shift in philosophy that will dramatically change your practice and your patients. You will attract and retain more patients, and they will become walking advertisements for your technical skills. Your practice will benefit from performing higher-end procedures, and your production per patient will increase. With the aging population and the Boomers looking to retain their youth, the demand for these types of procedures will just continue to grow. So, make sure your practice is prepared to take advantage of this opportunity to do great work and give patients the beautiful smiles they’ve always wanted — with cosmetic and aesthetic dentistry.
Since 1982, Debra Engelhardt Nash has been a Management Consultant and Seminar leader based in the Southeast USA. She has worked in hundreds of dental practices, and has been an instructor for Central Piedmont Community College Dental Assisting Program in Charlotte, NC. Debra is a founding member and has served two terms as President of the National Academy of Dental Management Consultants. She serves on the Board of the American Dental Assistants Association Foundation.