With dental practices increasingly relying upon a wide range of media and marketing techniques to promote themselves, David Lauder explains the need to balance commercial, ethical and regulatory considerations.

Ethical promotion

Arguably, good old-fashioned ‘word of mouth’ referrals remain the most reliable source of new patients – the lifeblood of any dental practice. However, the digital age has provided numerous opportunities for practices to reach not only potential new patients, but also to provide existing patients with information.

It is a generally accepted business principle that the cost of acquiring a new customer is several times that of retaining an existing one. It is therefore important to maintain high levels of service to existing patients, while seeking to market your services to new ones.

GDC guidance

When advertising or promoting a practice, the GDC’s Standards for the Dental Team 1.3.3 states: ‘You must make sure that any advertising, promotional material or other information that you produce is accurate and not misleading, and complies with the GDC’s guidance on ethical advertising.’

Central to this guidance are the requirements for registrants to avoid any offer or claim that could be seen as misleading and to put the interests of patients above their own or those of their business. In general, the GDC disapproves of the use of superlatives or ‘grandiose’ statements to describe the services offered. Dentists cannot use the words ‘specialist’, ‘specialises’ or ‘specialising’ when referring to themselves or their practice unless they, or any other dentists in the practice, are on a GDC specialist list. And even then, this term should only be used in relation to the particular specialist lists within which their names are included.

Legal, decent, honest, truthful and up-to-date

All marketing material must conform to the code published by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which enforces the code, can demand the withdrawal of adverts. For example, in one recent ruling, the ASA stated that an advert by a dental practice must not claim it’s braces were ‘faster, cause less pain and less root resorption compared to other orthodontic treatments’ in the absence of adequate evidence. The advertising watchdog can also refer cases to the Office of Fair Trading. The ASA has previously ruled against dentists using the title ‘Dr’ in any promotional material, on the basis that this could cause confusion with medical practitioners.

To avoid misunderstandings and complaints, it is vitally important that marketing and advertising information is regularly checked and updated. This includes the practice website and any social media sites. An undercover investigation by consumer group Which in 2016 reported that almost 40% of dental practices listed on the NHS Choices website as offering NHS services did not offer its researchers an NHS appointment when contacted. While there may be a number of reasons for this, the findings were negatively reported in newspaper coverage, demonstrating the potential for inaccurate information to influence negative public perception of an individual practice or the profession.

Patient photographs and testimonials

Patients need to give consent for the use of their confidential information in marketing material, which should be both contemporaneous and specific. This includes photographs and testimonials. Patients need to understand precisely what information will be retained, displayed or published, where and when it will be used, who will see it and the likely consequences. The patient should not be identifiable unless absolutely necessary. Even if the patient cannot be identified, their consent should still be sought.

Consent can be withdrawn at any time by the patient, so the practice must maintain control of the information. Particular care should be taken with online materials, which are more difficult to control. For example, it might be possible for photographs you place online to be copied and used elsewhere.

Promotional vouchers and gifts

Although the GDC permits dental professionals to offer practice promotions, discount vouchers have drawn critical attention from the GDC. In general, the GDC would not disapprove of incentives, provided the conditions attached to them are abundantly clear, none of the content is potentially misleading, and any offer made is honoured in full.

Offering gifts to patients who refer others is fraught with dentolegal problems and risks. For example, to pass a gift to patient A for recommending patient B, would involve breaching the confidentiality of both patients. The DDU would therefore strongly advise against such an approach.

In summary, while the GDC acknowledges that advertising and marketing material can help patients in making informed choices about their dental care, it is important that such information is carefully considered and regularly reviewed. Misleading, or potentially misleading, information may give a negative impression of the practice. This would frustrate its very purpose and have the potential to cause complaints, either directly to the practice or to regulatory bodies.

Dental professionals are advised to test promotional material against the current guidance and standards in force at the time. If in any doubt, contact your dental defence organisation for specific advice.


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