Ethics still important when it comes to advertising during pandemic recovery

 Dr. Mike Kurkowski
Dr. Kurkowski
The ADA Council on Ethics, Bylaws and Judicial Affairs is cautioning dentists to avoid crossing ethical lines when it comes to advertising, especially during these turbulent times when many patients may be reluctant to make appointments for fear of coronavirus transmission.

As dental offices across the country began reopening, concern has been expressed that some dental practices could seek to capitalize on physical plant renovations and equipment purchases by indicating or implying that their practices could very well be “safer” than other dental offices in order to boost patient appointments.

“There will be a natural reticence by some patients to return for routine dental care,” said Dr. Mike Kurkowski, council chair. “Dentists will strive to reassure and instill confidence that their office is doing everything necessary to safeguard the health of their patients and community.

“However, it is easy to overstep in communication and marketing and imply superiority that may not be science-based or be substantiated by fact,” Dr. Kurkowski continued. “Such claims may materially mislead the public and risk denigrating other practices. These unsubstantiated claims create public confusion and prey upon the fear that our pandemic has created.”

The ADA Principles of Ethics and the Code of Professional Conduct is still the ongoing touchstone for decision-making and behavior for the profession, Dr. Kurkowski said, and it explicitly applies to this concerning behavior.

“In times of uncertainty or rapid change, utilizing our Code provides guidance and reassurance concerning the multitude of decisions that dentists make daily,” Dr. Kurkowski said. “A moral compass like our Code facilitates how we interpret and fill in the gaps. Our Principles of Ethics inform much of our decision-making beyond simple business considerations.”

Dr. Guenter Jonke, council member, agreed that even though no one could predict the pandemic, the Code should be used as a valuable instrument to help the member dentist navigate through the recovery process.

Of the Code’s five core principles, veracity is particularly most applicable with respect to dental offices’ infection control policies, according to Dr. Jonke.

In the Code, the principle of veracity states that "the dentist's primary obligations include respecting the position of trust inherent in the dentist-patient relationship, communicating truthfully and without deception and maintaining intellectual integrity."

Later, in the same section, dentists are advised, "No dentist shall advertise or solicit patients in any form of communication in a manner that is false or misleading in any material aspect."

“It would inappropriate to make claims of superiority relative to other offices based upon infection control,” said Dr. Kurkowski. “A dental office will not have day-to-day information regarding current infection control protocols being performed by another office. Any claims of superiority would be based on assumptions or likely outdated information. In our current, rapidly changing environment, comparisons to another office would likely be inaccurate at best.”

Dr. Jonke affirmed the Code’s ongoing relevance when it came to advertising.

“Besides all the customary appropriate personal protective equipment, new technologies including powered air purifying respirators, UV light sanitizers, High Volume Evacuation Units and HEPA filtration units are currently being marketed and utilized by many offices,” Dr. Jonke said. “However, it would be unethical to advertise that it is superior or the only way to have dental treatment performed than any other office’s techniques. Social media marketing firms utilized by dentists need to be reminded that claims of superiority in this or any other area without substantiation will be not acceptable and violate our code.  Simply listing your updated infection control policies with your patients is most appropriate and accordance to our Code of Ethics.”

Dr. Jonke summarized the council’s overarching concerns and emphasized that they did not intend to moralize, but to guide.

“Many will say the Code is a living and always evolving document since its introduction in 1866. But the preamble in our Code says it best: The ethical dentist strives to do that which is right and good.”