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MyView: They should know better

August 21, 2017

Matthew J. Messina, D.D.S.


Matthew J. Messina, D.D.S.
Like most of you, I have become increasingly annoyed at the way the profession of dentistry is portrayed in the series of advertisements currently being aired by Aspen Dental.  While I get it that they are trying to be funny, I am concerned that the Aspen ads perpetuate negative stereotypes of dentists, the practice of dentistry, and the cost of dental care in general.  Advertisements like these, even if Aspen feels that they are intended to be humorous by exaggeration, do the profession as a whole a disservice.

We, as dental professionals, understand that many people are apprehensive about visiting the dentist and the fear of the cost of care is a significant component of those concerns.  When outside voices work to intensify those perceptions, portraying dentists as greedy, uncaring people and visiting the dentist as time-consuming and uncomfortable, it hurts the public.  We should be working to educate the people about why taking good care of their teeth and investing in good oral health is valuable and a necessary component of overall wellness.

Members of the ADA are excellent practitioners who truly care about our patients.  We are always seeking constructive ways to make dental care accessible to more people and to control the cost of care where possible.  If Aspen Dental is really interested in this goal, they should consider joining us in efforts to achieve that end, such as lobbying Congress and state legislatures for improved funding for public assistance patients and increased student loan repayment programs, both of which have a proven track record of increasing access to care.

The ADA Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct (ADA Code) contains language that urges dentists not to speak ill of other professionals and not to disparage their work.  Rather than chastise Aspen under this provision, I’ll choose a different tack with them.  A primary tenet of the ADA Code is beneficence (Sec. 3), detailing that a dentist’s primary obligation is service to the patient and the public at large.  Also, Sec. 4, “Justice,” contains the provision that the “dental profession should actively seek allies throughout society . . . that will help improve access to care for all.”  I hope that we can encourage Aspen to work with us in areas where we have common interests.  It would benefit them more than they think.

While hard numbers are difficult to determine, estimates are that at least 30 percent of dentists practicing at Aspen Dental centers are ADA members.  The majority of our colleagues who work there are also younger members.  Studies have shown that millennials, as a group, tend to want to be involved in or be employed by organizations that are socially responsible. They seek companies that they can identify with and feel proud to be a part of. When a company engages in advertisements that portray their future profession as the butt of a joke to try to score points and get new business, they might be alienating potential future employee dentists. 

The ADA speaks strongly for the profession and advocates for the ethical practice of dentistry. We have made the promotion of the ADA Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct a center point of our
communications and patients have shown that they value the fact that member dentists agree to abide by the ADA Code. It is also important to remember (and shout out loudly) that our members have been voluntarily supporting the ADA Code for more than 150 years. 

The dental profession holds a special position of trust within society. As a consequence, society affords the profession certain privileges that are not available to members of the public-at-large. In return, the profession makes a commitment to society that its members will adhere to high ethical standards of conduct. The ADA Code is, in effect, a written expression of the obligations arising from the implied contract between the dental profession and society.

A consistent goal of the dental profession is to provide timely, patient-centered, scientifically based, cost-effective care. We face significant challenges from those outside of the profession. It is disheartening when groups within our family use the media to work against us by reinforcing negative stereotypes. 

Rather than get angry, I’m for working to make something better of this.  It is possible that the Aspen ads will boost awareness of dentistry with the public. We can work to use that to the advantage of the profession. Recent studies have shown that 69 percent of patients are more likely to choose an ADA member dentist, knowing that those dentists follow a Code of Ethics. Also, nearly 75 percent of patients said that simply knowing a dentist was an ADA member would influence whom they selected as a dentist.

The ADA launched a digital ad campaign this summer to connect audiences to the Find an ADA Dentist site at findadentist.ada.org.  We also should promote the ADA Code of Ethics video available on YouTube as this supports who we are as professionals and meets an interest in the public to understand what makes member dentists different.

A central tenet in communications is to speak up for what you are for, not for what you are against. As difficult as it is not to respond directly to the Aspen ads (and I admit to having marks on my tongue from biting it), that’s the right thing to do. I am for promoting the positive, and there are so many wonderful stories of ADA member dentists helping the public and providing superior care. Rather than poking fun at the profession, let’s work on concrete solutions that will benefit all of society. As my grandmother used to say, “They should know better.”  Luckily, we do . . . and we’re committed to doing better, as well.

This editorial, reprinted with permission, originally appeared in the August issue of ODA Today, the publication of the Ohio Dental Association. Dr. Messina is the executive editor.