American dentistry should be the envy of the world. We have 5 of the world top 20 dental schools – more than any other country – and we are home to many of the industry’s most exciting innovators. We are known worldwide for our obsession with straight teethand it was undoubtedly Hollywood that attracted the world addicted to sparkling smiles.
Look a little closer, however, and things don’t look so good. Yes, American dentists are some of the best in the world, but Americans don’t see them often enough. According to the CDC, one in four U.S. residents have untreated tooth decay and nearly half have gum disease, with severe gum disease – which can lead to tooth loss – affecting nearly one in 10 of us.
What’s going on? Well, it’s complicated. Like much of our health care system, dental care can be expensive, and far too many Americans still lack adequate dental insurance. Across the country, there is a shortage of dentists and allied health professionals, resulting in an uneven distribution of oral care. This staff shortage ultimately limits access to care, especially for people living in rural areas.
These are big systemic problems, and we need to find answers to them in order to give people the care they need. But we must also recognize that in many cases the failure of Americans to obtain proper dental treatment is not due to financial constraints or lack of appropriate caregivers – it’s because they think of a visit to the dentist with the same fondness with which they view IRS audits or colonoscopies.
A necessary evil
For most of us, visits to the dentist are, at best, a necessary evil. Numbing, scratching and drilling are part of it, of course: no one will ever look forward to a root canal or a cleaning session below the gumline. But if we’re being honest, it’s not the treatments that put us off: it’s the incessant minor annoyances and inconveniences that accompany even the most routine and inconsequential dental visit.
We’ve grown accustomed to having to phone to make appointments months in advance – and then having to show up when we’re told, rather than when we want to, no matter how that fits into our work schedules. work or child care. . We’re used to having to sit in a dingy waiting room, with nothing but months-old magazines for company, filling mountains of paperwork. When the procedure takes place, we’re used to staring at the ceiling as the hum of drills vies with annoying background noise for our attention.
Put it all together, and is it any wonder so many of us skip our routine exams? It’s the reality of American dentistry, however, and it’s something that reflects a complacency that underlies much of what we do as health care providers. For too long, dentists have focused on drilling and billing rather than optimizing the patient experience – and it’s driving many of our patients away, with terrible results for their dental health.
Experience is everything
It’s not a minor problem. In addition to leaving patients with poorer dental health overall, our unwelcoming and uninspired dental practices leave many Americans relying on emergency care when dental issues become too serious to ignore. The schoolchildren of our country are losing 34 million class hours each year due to unplanned urgent dental care, and oral disease saps the productivity of $45 billion from the US economy as patients miss work for urgent help.
So what is the solution ? Well, it starts with recognizing that optimizing the patient experience is not a luxury – it’s an essential part of driving equity in healthcare and better outcomes for our patients. Inconvenient and unpleasant dental care experiences should be no more acceptable to us than blurry X-rays or loose fillings.
Once we start prioritizing convenience, opportunities to improve the patient experience can be found everywhere. Appointment booking can be done online, for example, through portals that allow patients to manage their schedule. Practices can stay open outside normal working hours, so patients can find time slots that don’t force them to choose between their job and their teeth. And by pooling resources under a dental service organization (DSO), practices can ensure that their patients can book appointments quickly, instead of waiting weeks or months to be seen.
Even the in-office experience can be streamlined and improved: why not let patients choose which Netflix show to watch in the waiting room or, even better, during a procedure? Noise-canceling headphones, high-end furniture, and other add-ons can also make the experience more luxurious and less tedious and burdensome for everyone.
Convenience is not a luxury
This all might sound a bit pipe dream: sure, it would be nice to make dental visits more convenient, but should dental practices really prioritize these kinds of investments in these difficult times?
While a convenience-focused approach may not be the right approach for every practice, there is certainly significant patient demand for more convenient and enjoyable care. The more dental businesses step up and commit to meeting the needs of their patients, the more patients will realize that access to dental care doesn’t have to be boring or unpleasant, and will actively seek out practices that provide an easy way , pleasant and low friction. patient experience.
As this happens, we will increasingly see convenience become a key differentiator for dental businesses and a key criterion for private equity firms and other investors looking to throw their weight behind on practices with real endurance. This, in turn, will lead to better care for patients – because the more convenient dental care becomes, the more patients will seek out the routine care and early treatment they need.
The reality is that for today’s dental business, convenience is not a pipe dream, and it’s not a luxury – it’s an essential complement to high-quality care, because without convenience, we will end up leaving people behind. As we look to the future of American dentistry, we will need innovative treatments, but we must also innovate in the patient experience and ensure that we put dental care within everyone’s reach.
Photo: Nastasic, Getty Images