We do a lot of consumer research at 1-800-DENTIST, and recently we did a nationwide survey on attitudes towards dentists and dentistry. This wasn’t done just with people who called our service, but was a random sampling across the country. We learned some interesting things.
First, more than 65% of Californians have a regular dentist. This is higher than the national average, and almost the reverse of certain southern states, namely Mississippi and Alabama, where nearly 70% of the population do not have a regular dentist, and only seek one in an emergency situation.
On another note, more than half of dental patients in New York that we surveyed were unhappy with their dentist. Are people just crankier in New York? Because over 65% were happy with their current dentists in California. It’s not like they don’t have a choice to change dentists in New York. They certainly don’t have to go all the way to California to find a dentist they like.
There are wide variations in dental behavior all across the country, and we have learned from answering millions of calls from people looking for a dentist that their expectations are also quite varied. In some parts of the country the majority of people expect someone else to pay for their dental care, and in other cities and neighborhoods the primary concern is the level of care and expertise of the dentist and practice, regardless of cost.
How can there be so much variation around the country? We all watch the same TV shows and movies, with actors with great smiles, why is it so acceptable in so many places to neglect yourself until it’s an emergency, and even then an extraction is the requested treatment?
My only conclusion is that it’s cultural, and that culture can be very localized. And I do see the consciousness shifting in the consumer mindset, but it’s gradual, and was certainly set back in 2008 when many people in the middle and lower classes lost a good portion of their discretionary income, and paying for their dental care became a financial impossibility.
It seems unlikely that the Affordable Care Act, which is already a Frankenstein of various conflicting solutions, as it mutates and is either gutted, revised or replaced, will ever encompass much in terms of dental care. It does currently require that most children be covered by 2018 (after another presidential election).
And therein lies the solution, I believe. It starts with children, as most cultural shifts do. We need as an industry, as a nation, to do our level best to help children to, first, not be afraid of seeing a dentist (that usually means keeping the parent out of the operatory) and to be much more concerned about neglecting and damaging their teeth. We are making valiant stabs at this, by eliminating sugared drinks in schools, and in California, for example, a child cannot begin the first grade without having seen a dentist, but much more needs to be done.
Our goal should be a complete shift within a generation, so that 99% of American children brush, floss and see a dentist regularly, and like the dentist they go to. And that they know what damages their teeth, and what protects them. It’s probably going to be done practice by practice, since I don’t expect there will be a national awareness campaign anytime soon. (Maybe the next First Lady will take it on!)
Our company is going to keep promoting dentistry, and expanding our ad budget, but I think it will take an increased focus by individual practices all across the country to make this tectonic shift occur. I hope you’re with me, and I welcome your thoughts and comments on this.
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