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Letters: Aspen Dental response

October 02, 2017

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the Aug. 21 ADA News My View, “They Should Know Better,” by Dr. Matthew J. Messina.

While I can understand that the new Aspen Dental advertising campaign has caught the attention of many in the dental profession, I’d like to provide some additional insight to my fellow ADA members into how and why this TV campaign was created.

The patient perception that dentistry is expensive is not a new one. This shows up in pop culture, social media and traditional media with regular frequency. In fact, just this past summer alone, several high-profile articles and reports have been published in widely read and widely shared news outlets about the cost of dentistry being a major barrier to everyday Americans getting the care they need, even when those everyday Americans have stable employment. 1-4
These news stories detail the lengths to which these hard-working patients must go to find care they can afford, including waiting in long lines to be seen at free community dental clinics and, incredibly, leaving the country to seek care. These are simply small snapshots of a widespread need for patients to have more flexible and affordable dentistry options. Like it or not, our profession must acknowledge this reality for many, many Americans overtly if we are to help improve care in this country. To suggest this reality is a mere public perception issue inflamed by a TV advertising campaign demonstrates how far we as a profession still have to go.

The ADA’s own research shows that 150 million Americans did not visit a dentist last year, and our research shows that 25 percent of Aspen Dental patients have not seen the dentist in more than five years, and one in 10 patients have not seen a dentist in a decade or more.

Knowing this, our team spoke with real consumers from across the nation to gain an even better understanding of why they have avoided the dentist even when their need for care was great. This deep consumer research illustrates that for this cohort, many barriers to care exist including lack of trust, cost, fear, physical pain and shame. We also learned that the best way to break down those barriers and shift these potential patients to a place of even considering making an appointment is to acknowledge these truths, their truths, head-on in advertising. While emphasizing traditional dentistry messages of taking good care of teeth and investing in good oral health has benefits for many people including children who are just forming their oral health habits and those groups of patients who traditionally have fewer barriers to care, this particular cohort of hard-working Americans is not persuaded by these messages. For this group, traditional dentistry messages are another example of dental professionals and the industry at large being yet again tone-deaf to their needs, emotions and life situation. And, for many, the state of their oral health is too far gone, and the physical pain is too great for traditional messages to be even remotely helpful.

The new Aspen Dental advertising campaign was born from this deep, real-person, consumer understanding and research. And when viewed objectively, rather than intensifying negative perceptions of dentists, the campaign aims to do the exact opposite. The dentist in the TV spots is portrayed as calm, approachable, helpful, caring, knowledgeable and resourceful. Our testing shows that for many people, this helps to humanize dentists overall rather than keeping dentists on a pedestal, elevated and apart from the patients they serve. Most importantly, this humanization of dentists, when combined with a clear acknowledgement of real-life barriers to care, is a compelling message to this group of potential patients — and often results in a patient taking the step to make an appointment. We fully expect that sometimes they choose to make an appointment with an Aspen Dental dentist, and sometimes they call a traditional private practice. Either way, this message is compelling patients to take a very important first step towards getting the care they need.

The new TV advertising is just one way Aspen Dental dentists are reaching patients who have major barriers to care. Aspen Dental dentists know that for some patients, any financial cost for care is too much of a burden to bear. This is why the Aspen Dental Health Mouth Movement was created in 2014. Since this program’s inception, Aspen Dental dentists and dental professional teams across the country have donated more than $10 million in free dentistry to thousands of our nation’s veterans who are not covered by dental insurance. These numbers grow each and every week as the Aspen Dental Mouth Mobile criss-crosses our country, enabling local Aspen Dental dentists and teams to see and treat the heroes who live and work in their communities. And June 24 marked the fourth  year of Aspen Dental’s Day of Service — with the vast majority of Aspen Dental offices across the nation closing for regular business and instead opening for a full day of free dental care and treatment for U.S. veteran patients.

As a longtime member of the ADA, I believe that the ADA can and should play a role in breaking down barriers to care for patients. I believe a strong ADA is in the best interest of both the dental profession and the patients we serve. But there are headwinds for the organization that are cause for concern, perhaps the largest of which is the declining percentage of dentists who are ADA members. This may be due in part to whether or not dental service organization-supported dentists feel welcome, supported or even relevant to the ADA — despite the fact that we have all been through the same training and hold the same credentials from the same institutions as nondental service organization-affiliated colleagues. Again, as a longtime ADA member, I believe that a strong ADA is in the best long-term interests of our profession. But knowing that an ever-increasing percentage of new dental school graduates are selecting a dental service organization-affiliated career path, the frequently expressed sentiment that the ADA is not relevant is troubling to me, and it should be to the ADA and its membership as well.

There is much work to do — together — to address our nation’s oral health crisis.

Arwinder Judge, D.D.S.
Chief clinical officer
Aspen Dental Management, Inc.

1.    Jordan, M. & Sullivan, K. “The Painful Truth About Teeth.” The Washington Post 13 May 2017.
2.    Stanton, J. “Filling the Gap” 15 June 2017.
3.    Potter, W. “How America’s Dental Health Crisis Created Mexico’s “Molar City” Huffington Post 23 June 2017.
4.    “America’s Dental Crisis: Thousands Cross into One Mexican City for Treatment” NBC Nightly News 06 August 2017.