Advertising and Marketing the Dental Practice – September 2010

Advertising and marketing a dental practice entails some of the most important business decisions dentists must make to ensure that their practices grow at a steady rate and attract the patients that will make a long term and viable base of income. There are laws and general considerations which should be taken into account in making these decisions, particularly with the emergence of the internet, web sites, blogging, social networking, and other forms of communication of the worth of using a particular dentist or dental practice.

Massachusetts law on dental advertising is fairly detailed and refers specifically in the Massachusetts General Laws (Chapter 112 Section 52A) to illegal advertising for dental practices and the restrictions and requirements for the disclosure of dental service referrals. The most important restriction, which can result in litigation which involves possible triple damages under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act (Chapter 93A), is the prohibition of false and deceptive advertising. Claiming superiority of dental services or claiming the “performance of painless operations of a dental or oral surgical nature” is also not allowed. “Show cases,” or representations of teeth or restorations cannot be included in any advertising, nor are guarantees of satisfaction with dental services. No testimonials considered to be opinions of the quality of services can be present within any advertisement. Whether there is a byline for the dentist involved is important, as the regulations require that there be a disclosure of the source and writer of any material under that byline.

Fees are an important consideration for patients when choosing a dentist, and pricing can be included in advertisements as long as there are no undisclosed fees or reasonably anticipated additional costs for individual procedures. Discounts for services must mention the total fee involved before the discount is taken.

The new Massachusetts Dental Regulations that went to effect on August 20, 2010 have important provisions regarding informed consent, and the Massachusetts statute on dental advertising supplements those sections by requiring advertisements to disclose the risks of procedures as well as benefits. Statistical data illustrating benefits or risks of procedures must be independently verifiable by prospective patients.

Disclosure of referral service fees and arrangements must be included in any advertising by dentists using them. If a dental office mentions that it can offer specialty services to patients, it cannot refer to any specialty services that are not performed within the particular dental office advertised.

There are definite liability issues that come into play with the use of web sites to market the practice, and since almost all entities seem to have their own web site today, knowledge of these issues is essential. Copyright laws must be followed, so be aware that use of research by others, or articles on particular topics, may require written permission of the author should the material be copyrighted. Patient information protected by HIPAA can generally not be used on web sites.

Sometimes advertising can involve interactive media, such as blogs, or participation sections of web sites. Disclaimers are essential in using this type of promotion of the practice, as are restrictions on the unauthorized practice of dentistry by rendering advice on-line. This is not a clear cut area of law, is changing rapidly, and varies from state to state and under federal regulations, so it is important to consult with an attorney before using this type of marketing.

Ethical and other considerations involved in marketing, in addition to codified restrictions, are important to successful promotion of a practice, and building confidence and respect with prospective patients involves both obeying the law as well as taking into account how patients may feel about professionals advertising for their services.