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Dentists Step Up Marketing as Patients Skip Their Visits

In the slowdown, even dentists are feeling the pinch. David Wong, who runs a private practice with his wife in Tulsa, Okla., has seen his business slip 10% since the beginning of this year. That has him spending more time marketing and less time cleaning or pulling teeth.

Dr. Wong has upped his advertising, taking advantage of low newspaper and broadcast rates, and now sends email reminders to customers on top of traditional mailed postcards. He is even on Twitter, aiming to connect with customers as “not just the guy in a white coat with a drill in his hand.”

“It’s a lot more work,” he admits. “You can’t go to the office and just be a dentist anymore; you have to go to the office and be a dentist and a CEO.”

Jacquel Elias Dentist David Wong with a patient at his office in Tulsa, Okla. Dr. Wong uses ads, email, regular mail and Twitter to keep touch with patients.
Like many dentists, Dr. Wong has noticed a trend in the last year: As more patients lose jobs and employer-sponsored insurance, fewer come in for major treatments or even routine cleanings. A little more than half of 1,275 dentists surveyed in July by the American Dental Association said their net incomes have decreased and their unbooked appointment times have increased from the first quarter. That means more dentists see the need to step up the marketing of their services.

“Dentists are taking a good look at their systems, trying to figure out what they can do internally that won’t cost them anything but will keep people coming,” says Gene Werner of Mercer Advisors, a company that does financial planning and practice management for about 4,000 dental practices across the nation.

There are more than 120,000 dental practices in the U.S., according to the dental association’s last count in 2002; more than 60% of them are solo practices.

In dental school, most dentists learn that good location and personal service will earn referrals to new patients. But these days, the old ways alone aren’t enough to cut it and dentists with slumping business want to know what to do differently, Ms. Werner says.

“For four years in dental school, they learn damn well how to take care of teeth but they don’t know anything about business,” says Ms. Werner. “I see that more in dentistry than any other business.”

Dentists like Ken Peters of Highlands Ranch, Colo., noticed twice as many patients were cancelling appointments and putting off expensive treatment in mid-2008 from the year before. “They figure they can’t afford it so they wait,” says Dr. Peters, who estimates between 20% and 30% of his patients have put off dental treatment, hoping to find another job in time to cover them. “They’d rather feed their family than spend the money on a crown.”

Hesitant about the effectiveness of marketing for dentists, Dr. Peters says he and his small staff haven’t modified their strategies much besides contacting patients more often.

Other dentists have significantly upped their personal connection with patients by sending newsletters in the mail, offering phased payment schedules for the recently uninsured, or calling patients directly to book routine cleanings.

Scott Scharf’s office in Plymouth, Minn., has rolled back prices on crowns while his office staff hand-write between 150 and 200 letters to patients a week. The office started seeing a slew of cancellations in February. The receptionists began jotting notes in the margins of patients’ charts on their last visits before insurance ran out: “Losing job soon.” For the time being, the schedule is still full of patients, “but it’s trouble to keep them there,” says Pam Kent, Dr. Scharf’s clinic manager.

To be sure, some dentists have received a business boost as the soon-to-be unemployed seek health care before their benefits run out. But turning those patients into regular customers is tricky unless they are in pain.

Meanwhile, Dr. Wong in Oklahoma uses Twitter to reach patients with marketing messages. One recent tweet: “Check out our latest implant surgery video to stabilize loose dentures.”

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page B5

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