A Case for Rebranding
Dentistry’s obligation to abolish the stigma of periodontal disease
Robert H. Maccario, MBA
The "business" of dentistry continues to accelerate and impact the profession. It can have a significant, positive effect when filtered through the simple practice philosophy that "quality of care is the focus, and profitability is the byproduct." Ethical business practices highlight and enhance clinical outcomes-not detract from them.
As a part of this ethical approach, practices would do well to recognize the substantial differences between the motivations of "consumer buyers" and "healthcare buyers." Many dental practices direct their marketing strategies toward the similarities shared by these motivations but unfortunately, miss the considerable differences. A practice's marketing and communication strategy needs to embrace both in order to increase treatment acceptance, patient health, and the practice's success. Due to emerging developments in our understanding of the connection between oral and systemic health as well as shifts in how these are understood in the mind of the healthcare buyer, new opportunities exist to gain better patient acceptance of recommended treatments, which serves the interests of both patients and providers.
Accordingly, the specific words that you choose to use in your patient communications matter, and perhaps, they matter more now than ever before. That is why it is imperative to consider that the effectiveness of your treatment and the patient's resulting health can depend upon the implication and gravity of your message.
Such is the case with periodontal disease. Given the differences in healthcare and consumer buyer motivation, the past successes of rebranding, patients' new association of dental care with medical care, and improvements to the healthcare buyer interaction, the profession should consider rebranding "gum disease" as"oral systemic infection (OSI)." Ultimately, rebranding can help to eliminate some of the stigma associated with periodontal disease by elevating its value to that of a medical condition. This can serve to ease patients' minds and enhance the provider-patient communication process.
Healthcare buyer motivation proves dramatically different from consumer buyer motivation, yet is regularly overlooked in everyday practice. To clarify, the marketing of consumer goods and services is focused on pride of ownership (eg, the new car, latest cell phone, current fashion, etc). However, with healthcare buyer motivation, the patient does not take pride of ownership when purchasing treatment for his or her health conditions. In many cases, a patient can be embarrassed about an affliction and its associated stigma-even to the extent of denial. For example, you do not hear many people announce that they are incontinent or impotent or brag about their laxative. It's the same when it comes to dental care. Most people aren't looking to reveal to a neighbor or coworker that they have periodontal disease or bad breath. Even when complimented about having a gorgeous smile, many restored patients will politely accept the compliment, preferring to let everyone assume it is their natural dentition. Due to these differences in motivation, to achieve a successful outcome with treatment acceptance among healthcare buyers, it takes a different approach than how you would deal with a buyer of consumer goods and services.
The Way Forward
Fortunately, science has shown the way forward. Both the healthcare profession and the patient population now recognize that many general health conditions originate in the oral cavity and that problems in the oral cavity can make other medical conditions worse. To quote Lee Ostler, DDS, a past president of the American Academy for Oral Systemic Health, "Periodontal disease is a medical condition with a dental solution." This means that these oral infections are true medical issues, and that only a licensed dental provider is trained to treat them.
A practice that adopts this current science-based approach to oral healthcare is no longer "just" a dental practice. And a dentist who adopts it no longer merely a "tooth doctor" but instead, a specialized healthcare provider focused on the oral cavity. This level of care is rapidly becoming the standard in the minds of patients, the community, and the courts.
In his book, Identity Crisis: Health Care Branding's Hidden Problems and Proven Strategies to Solve Them, Vince Parry suggests that "by rebranding a condition that engenders embarrassment, a product (service) can help foster a new, more reputable way to think about a condition." He notes some excellent examples, such as how incontinence is now called overactive bladder and is no longer associated with bed-wetting; impotence is now called erectile dysfunction, which is a medical problem that can be treated; and, closer to home in dental practice, heartburn is now treated as gastroesophageal reflux disease. Rebranding these conditions helped open the doorway to more comfortable, intelligent, and acceptable conversations between providers and healthcare buyers, which results in more patients getting the treatments they need.
Rebranding Periodontal Disease
Parry challenges readers by asking, "Are there stigmas/social concerns associated with the condition your product (service) treats that would hinder a physician-patient dialogue?" Periodontal disease certainly falls into this category. As previously mentioned, not many patients brag about having bleeding gums or lost teeth. Could the rebranding of periodontal disease help reduce the barriers to communication and increase treatment acceptance? There are stigmas and other social concerns associatedwith periodontal disease. The first and most important ones to recognize are the patients' own perspectives. They may be thinking that having periodontal disease makes them bad patients or be concerned that practitioners think that they are incorrectly performing home hygiene or avoiding it altogether. The second major obstacle is society's belief that periodontal disease is "justa dental problem," instead of a medical condition that can have potentially serious effects on an individual's health. So, how can we overcome these two major obstacles and unleash healthcare buyer motivation to seek treatment?
These two critical obstacles in communication with healthcare buyers can be overcome by rebranding periodontal disease. The good news is that mainstream research now supports treating periodontal disease as a significant medical condition. In this manner, the stigma is minimized. Patients don't see themselves as being at fault for having an embarrassing personal problem because it is a medical condition that could occur despite their best efforts. It suddenly seems safe, even necessary, for the patient to talk about periodontal disease in order to protect his or her overall well-being.
The concept of infection is already commonly understood. Many people have suffered infections through no fault of their own. They know that an infection requires immediate attention because it can become a serious medical problem. Coupling this with their newfound understanding of the oral systemic link to rebrand periodontal disease as OSI both reduces the stigma and increases healthcare buyer motivation to seek treatment.
Still unconvinced that rebranding is applicable to the dental profession? Another current example of these concepts in action involves snoring and sleep apnea. Snoring has long been viewed with some humor, and those who suffer from it certainly view it with contempt and embarrassment. After a rebranding, it is now called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Due to physicians' recommendations and support from the media, patients now understand OSA. The stigma has been removed, and many lives have been saved because it is now recognized as a serious medical condition.
A Value Proposition
When practices implement marketing and communication strategies directed at the healthcare buyer's motivations, such as positioning a condition as a legitimate medical issue (ie, raising the value) and positioning a condition as something that many people experience (ie, eliminating the stigma), it creates a more complete health value proposition. This makes it easier for the dental provider to discuss necessary treatment and for the healthcare buyer to accept. Indeed, the science confirms that periodontal disease is a medical condition that demands a dental solution. By "closing the loop" between dentists and medical professionals with improved communication, the dental profession can save patients' lives. And that's an obligation that doesn't require rebranding to recognize.
About the Author
Robert H. Maccario, MBA, is the president of Dental Management Sciences, LLC, a business management firm for dental practices.