Managing word of mouth


Dentists have always relied on testimonials from patients to grow their businesses, but under current Dental Board guidelines, testimonials are a no-no. But some people are lobbying for that to change. Sue Nelson reports

Are testimonials just word of mouth marketing?
Are testimonials just word of mouth marketing?

Being able to get the word out about your product or service is crucial to any small business, and in the age of social media, it isn’t difficult—clients of most services are only too happy to broadcast their experiences, good and bad, to the rest of the public at large. If your service comes to the attention of these prolific web reviewers, you can expect a lot of free publicity via word of mouth on sites such as WOMO, Facebook, TrueLocal and others.

The problem—and some would say the ethical dilemma—for those in the health professions is that advertising is strictly regulated by a set of guidelines that prescribes acceptable and unacceptable advertising for dental practices and, among other things, restricts dentists and other health professionals from using testimonials from patients in their advertising.

There are clear reasons why health services need advertising restrictions—for example, to prevent exploitation of a patient’s trust, fear or comparative lack of knowledge of the subject matter.

But many in the dental profession and wider industry believe that the guidelines have failed to keep up with the times. “Although my job is to market dental practices, I do not want to see the dental profession debase itself through dubious advertising tactics, which is why I am so fervently in favour of the use of patient testimonials,” says Carl Burroughs of Integrated Dental Marketing.

“Word of mouth has always been a dentist’s best marketing,” Burroughs says. “That is as true today as at any time in the past. I see testimonials as an obvious part of this word-of-mouth approach and think it would give potential patients access to some of the information they actually want to know about a dentist.”

Burroughs conducted a recent survey online to see how dentists feel about the issue. He says that 64 per cent of respondents were in favour of using testimonials, while 36 per cent were happy with the status quo. “In the same survey, I asked if dentists had concerns about the Dental Board’s other marketing guidelines and the results were the same,” he adds.

Dr Karin Alexander, federal president of the Australian Dental Association (ADA), agrees with the principles behind the Dental Board’s ban on testimonials. “Patients and dentists have different knowledge bases, so while a patient might be happy, they really don’t have the skills to judge whether a job is good or not, so there’s no way a dentist should be encouraging people to make any sort of testimonial—and it is currently against the Dental Board of Australia’s guidelines on advertising, as well as the national law that regulates all the health professions.”

But Dr Alexander agrees that the restriction is difficult to police when it comes to third-party websites. “It is a little bit of a grey area with social media, as the dentist may not know that a patient is writing a testimonial or putting up a comment. There is word-of-mouth referral already—that’s how a lot of us get our business—but there’s a difference between a patient saying someone is a nice dentist, which is kind of just conversational, and testimonials where the patient makes claims about the dentist’s abilities.”

The Dental Board’s codes and guidelines, along with those of the other health regulatory bodies under the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) umbrella, were recently due for review. AHPRA published a consultation paper containing a proposed social media policy and amendments to its advertising guidelines. “The ADA did make a submission and basically we agreed with most of the Dental Board’s guidelines in keeping it restricted,” says Dr Alexander.

“Dentistry is not a commodity, it’s a professional health service, and as such dentists should act professionally and ethically in terms of how they advertise. We have already got ways of advertising—it needs to be factual, correct, it shouldn’t denigrate anyone else or make outrageous claims.”

In its submission to AHPRA, the ADA did query where the line is drawn when it comes to third-party websites. “If a patient does write up a testimonial and a dentist is not aware of it, the Board hasn’t really explained the dentist’s obligations to prevent this happening,” says Dr Alexander. “If it’s on the dentist’s own website, that’s definitely overstepping the mark. But you can’t keep your eye on everyone. It’s difficult to police and we don’t have a way of influencing third-party sites or asking them to take testimonials down. Dentists need to know the reasonable steps to take. The situation is clear cut where it’s your own website. It’s a simple thing of keeping them off.”

Burroughs believes there is a role for patients’ opinions. “Currently it is okay for a dentist to publish a statement saying how good they are at dentistry but it’s not okay to publish a patient who says the same thing. Every good dentist I know receives handwritten cards thanking them for their kind work and I personally think as a potential patient I would like to be able to read and hear about how existing patients feel about a practice or individual dentist.

“Testimonials could be falsified, I suppose, and that might be a fear, but there are rules in place to stop misleading conduct and I would not be opposed to the dental board issuing their own set of guidelines in this area.”

Perusing some of the social media review sites, it is clear that some dentists have very enthusiastic patients. Is ignorance of the guidelines an excuse for practitioners who ‘groom’ patients? “Just as the internet makes it easy for people to communicate, it also makes it very easy for them to look up information on the guidelines and their advertising obligations,” says Dr Alexander. “The material is out there, it’s easy to access and it’s accessible any time of the day or night.

“We would caution any dentist to be very wary of allowing patients to do that if they had any idea of it. Dentists want to be very wary and careful that they don’t give the impression that this is what they want patients to do.”

The Dental Board has indicated that if a practitioner is not aware of testimonials on a third-party website, it would not consider that dentist to be in breach of his or her obligations. The Board’s spokesperson adds that the new regime has a protective, not punitive application. “That is, it’s about protecting the public from harm, not ‘punishing’ practitioners.” ≤


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