American dentistry should be the envy of the world. We have 5 of the top 20 in the world 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 maybe Hollywood won the world hooked on sparkling smiles.
Look a little closer, however, and things don’t look so good. Yes, American dentists are among the best in the world, but Americans don’t go to them often enough. According to the CDC, one in four US residents have untreated tooth decay and nearly half have gum disease, with severe gum disease — which can lead to tooth loss — affecting almost one in 10 of us.
What’s happening? Well, it’s complicated. Like much of our health care system, dental care can be expensive, and too many Americans still don’t have adequate dental insurance. There is a nationwide shortage of dentists and allied health professionals, resulting in uneven distribution of oral health care. This staffing shortage ultimately limits access to care, especially for those in rural areas.
These are big, systemic problems, and we need to find answers to them to give people the care they need. But we also have to recognize that in many cases, Americans are failing to get proper dental treatment is not due to financial constraints or a lack of suitable caregivers—that’s because they think of a trip to the dentist with the same fondness they regard IRS audits or colonoscopies.
A necessary evil
For most of us, visits to the dentist are a necessary evil at best. The tingling, scraping, and drilling are part of it, of course: no one will ever look forward to a root canal or cleaning session below the gum line. But if we’re being honest, it’s not the treatment that turns us off: it’s the relentless minor irritations and inconveniences that accompany even the most routine and non-essential dental visit.
We’re used to calling on the phone to book appointments months in advance—and then showing up when we’re told, not when we want, regardless of how it fits into our work schedule or childcare schedule. We’re used to sitting in a dingy waiting room, with nothing but a few months old company magazines, filling out mountains of paperwork. When the procedure takes place, we are used to staring at the ceiling while the hum of the drills competes with the annoying background noise for our attention.
Put all this together and is it any wonder so many of us skip our routine checkups? However, this is the reality of American dentistry, and it is something that reflects the complacency that underlies much of what we do as health care providers. For too long dentists have focused on drilling and billing instead of optimizing the patient experience – and this is turning away many of our patients with terrible dental health outcomes.
Experience is everything
This is not an insignificant problem. In addition to leaving patients with poorer dental health overall, our unattractive and uninspiring dental offices cause many Americans to rely on emergency care when dental problems become too serious to ignore. The students of our country are losing 34 million hours of classroom time each year, unscheduled dental emergencies and oral diseases take $45 billion in productivity from the US economy as patients miss work to receive emergency care.
So what’s the solution? Well, it starts with recognizing that optimizing the patient experience isn’t a luxury—it’s a critical component to 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. Appointments can be made online, for example through portals that put patients in control of their schedule. Offices can stay open outside of regular business hours so patients can find places that don’t force them to choose between work and their teeth. And by pooling resources as part of a dental service organization (DSO), practices can ensure their patients can book appointments immediately, rather than waiting weeks or months to be seen.
Even the office experience can be streamlined and improved: 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 extras can make the entire experience more luxurious and less tedious and exhausting for everyone.
Convenience is not a luxury
This may all sound a bit like a pipe dream: sure, it would be nice to make visits to the dentist more convenient, but should dental practices really be prioritizing these types of investments in these difficult times?
While a convenience-first 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 accessing dental care doesn’t have to be annoying or unpleasant and will actively seek out practices that provide an easy, pleasant, and low-friction experience. the patient.
As this happens, we will increasingly see convenience become a key differentiator for the dental business and a key criterion for private equity firms and other investors looking to throw their weight behind practices with true sustainability. This, in turn, will lead to better patient care—because the more convenient dental care becomes, the more patients will seek the routine care and early treatment they need.
The reality is that for today’s dental business, convenience is not a pipe dream or a luxury—it is a vital adjunct to high-quality care, because without convenience, we will find ourselves 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 provide dental care that is accessible to all.
Photo: Nastasic, Getty Images