American dentistry should be the envy of the world. We have 5 of the world’s top 20 dental schools — more than any other country — and we’re home to many of the industry’s most exciting innovators. We’re known around the world for our obsession with straight teeth, and it was arguably Hollywood that got the world hooked on sparkling smiles.
Look a bit closer, though, and things don’t look so good. Yes, American dentists are among the very best in the world — but Americans don’t go to them nearly often enough. According to the CDC, one in four US residents have untreated tooth decay, and almost half have gum disease, with severe gum disease — which can lead to lost teeth — affecting almost one in 10 of us.
What’s going on? Well, it’s complicated. Like so much of our healthcare 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 associated health care professionals, resulting in an uneven distribution of oral healthcare. This staffing shortage is ultimately limiting access to care, especially to those 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 also need to acknowledge that in many cases, Americans’ failure to get proper dental treatment isn’t due to financial constraints or lack of suitable caregivers — it’s due to the fact that they think of a trip to the dentist with the same fondness with which they view IRS audits or colonoscopies.
A necessary evil
For most of us, dental visits are, at best, a necessary evil. The numbing and scraping and drilling is part of it, of course: nobody will ever look forward to a root canal or a below-the-gumline cleaning session. But if we’re honest, it isn’t the treatments that turn us off: it’s the relentless minor annoyances and inconveniences that accompany even the most routine and inconsequential dental visit.
We’ve grown used to having to phone up to book appointments months in advance — and to then having to turn up when we’re told to, rather than when we want to, regardless of how it fits in with our work or childcare schedules. We’re used to having to sit in a dingy waiting room, with nothing but a few months-old magazines for company, filling out mountains of paperwork. When the procedure takes place, we’re accustomed to staring at the ceiling while the buzzing of drills vies with annoying background noise for our attention.
Put all that together, and is it any wonder that so many of us skip our routine checkups? That’s the reality of American dentistry, though, and it’s something that reflects a complacency that underlies much of what we do as healthcare providers. For far too long, dentists have focused on drilling and billing rather than optimizing the patient experience — and that’s driving many of our patients away, with terrible results for their dental health.
Experience is everything
This isn’t a minor problem. Besides leaving patients with worse dental health overall, our uninviting and uninspired dental offices leave many Americans relying on urgent care when dental problems get too bad to ignore. Our country’s school children lose 34 million hours of classroom time every year due to unplanned urgent dental care, and oral disease saps $45 billion in productivity from the U.S. economy as patients miss work to get urgent help.
So what’s the solution? Well, it starts with recognizing that optimizing the patient experience isn’t a luxury — it’s a critical component in driving healthcare equity and better outcomes for our patients. Inconvenient and unpleasant dental-care experiences should be no more acceptable to us than blurry radiographs or loose fillings.
Once we start prioritizing convenience, opportunities to improve the patient experience can be found everywhere. Booking appointments can be done online, for instance, via portals that put patients in charge of their schedule. Offices can remain open outside regular work hours, so patients can find slots that don’t force them to choose between their job and their teeth. And by pooling resources as part of a dental service organization (DSO), practices can ensure that their patients can book appointments promptly, instead of waiting weeks or months to be seen.
Even the office experience can be streamlined and upgraded: why not let patients choose which Netflix show to watch in the waiting room — or, better yet, during a procedure? Noise-canceling headphones, premium furnishings, and other add-ons can make the entire experience more luxe and less tedious and distressing for everyone, too.
Convenience isn’t a luxury
All this might sound like a bit of a pipe dream: of course it would be nice to make dental visits more convenient, but should dental practices really be prioritizing these kinds of investments during these difficult times?
While a convenience-first approach might not be the right approach for every practice, there’s certainly a significant patient demand for more convenient and pleasant care. With the more dental businesses stepping up and committing to meeting their patients’ needs, the more patients will realize that accessing dentalcare doesn’t have to be annoying or unpleasant, and will actively seek out practices that provide an easy, pleasant, low-friction patient experience.
As that happens, we’ll increasingly see convenience become a key differentiator for dental businesses, and a key criterion for private equity companies and other investors looking to throw their weight behind practices with real staying power. That, 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 businesses, convenience isn’t a pipe dream, and it isn’t a luxury — It’s a vital adjunct to high-quality care, because without convenience, we’ll wind up leaving people behind. As we look to the future of American dentistry, we’ll need innovative treatments — but we also need to innovate the patient experience, and ensure we’re bringing dental care within reach for everyone.
Picture: Nastasic, Getty Images