Sending the right message

Dentists must be careful not to mislead patients when promoting their practice

ADVERTISING is becoming an increasingly common part of dental practice in the UK as more and more practitioners seek to promote their services and treatments on websites, fliers and in newspapers.

The General Dental Council makes it clear that any unsupported or misleading claims made by dental professionals could lead to a warning or possibly an appearance before a fitness to practise hearing.

And in March 2012, the regulator published new guidance, Principles of ethical advertising, which provides more detailed advice regarding the nature and content of all information or publicity material relating to dental services. This includes adverts for services, leaflets and websites as well as the use of specialist titles.

Consider the following examples of promotional material:

“Guaranteed results from the city’s leading denture specialist!”

“Forget the rest, our dentists are the best in the Union Street area”

“Our experienced periodontist offers treatment for a range of gum complaints”

Some of the unacceptable assertions made here may be more obvious than others. Clearly, guarantees of treatment outcomes should never be offered to patients and it is unacceptable to claim your practice, its dentists, or the treatment they offer, is any better than anyone else’s. Less obvious may be references to specialist status. GDC rules mean the word “specialist” must be used only by dentists who are on a GDC specialist list. In this example, the use of the phrase “denture specialist” or even referring to a “periodontist” would not be allowed.

Information flow

The GDC does accept that advertising “can be a source of information to help patients make informed choices about their dental care” provided it is “legal, decent, honest and truthful”. However it warns: “Advertising that is false, misleading or has the potential to mislead patients is unprofessional, may lead to referral to fitness to practise proceedings and can be a criminal offence.”

Concerns have been raised recently by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) that some UK dentists are not providing patients with enough information on topics such as charges and treatment options. Amongst the key findings of an OFT report on dentistry, published in May 2012, is that: “Dental patients often do not benefit from timely, clear and accurate information to make active, informed decisions regarding their choice of dentist and dental treatment.”

While the research does not specifically address the topic of dental advertising, it highlights the importance of practices keeping patients informed about various issues relating to their dental treatment, via leaflets, posters and websites. The report goes on to call for more patient information to be provided online, including by organisations such as NHS Choices and NHS 24.

The OFT is also supportive of the creation of new dental practices who it says are more likely to embrace innovation. The report states: “Research… found that only 53 per cent of dental practices which had not experienced a recent change of ownership were using a website to inform and attract patients, compared to 86 per cent of dental practices established within the last four years.”

Inform not mislead

Both the GDC and the OFT agree it is important for dentists to keep patients upto- date with details of the latest available dental treatments, fees and practice information as well as highlighting practitioners’ professional qualifications and experience. But while the financial downturn has increased competition amongst dentists, it is crucial that any advertising or publicity material does not make exaggerated claims.

It is important to bear in mind that the GDC’s additional guidance expects you, the practitioner, to ensure that adverts mentioning your name are accurate and not ambiguous – even if the ad was created by a colleague.

The GDC expects adverts to be current and accurate, include dentists’ GDC registration numbers, avoid jargon, back up any claims with facts, avoid ambiguous statements and “avoid statements or claims intended or likely to create an unjustified expectation about the results you can achieve.”

Adverts and other practice publicity also have to inform patients whether a practice is NHS, mixed or wholly private and products should only be recommended if they represent the “best way to meet a patient’s needs.”

Principles of ethical advertising also provides similar guidance on information that must be included on dental professionals’ websites. This includes their GDC number, professional qualifications and the country where those qualifications are from. Practices must include five further pieces of information including the practice name, location and contact details; the GDC’s contact details; information on the practice complaints procedure and the date the website was last updated. Websites must be kept accurate and up-to-date.

The GDC goes on to warn dentists not to make statements comparing their skills or qualifications with those of another dental professional and they also take a tough stance on the use of specialist titles. Dentists are told not to “mislead patients by using titles which could imply specialist status such as ‘smile specialist’ or ‘denture specialist’.” Dentists who are not on a specialist list should also avoid using the phrase “specialising in…” but can use phrases like “special interest in…” or “experienced in…”

Similarly, caution is advised when referring to honorary degrees or memberships of professional associations/societies as this may give the impression that it “represents a particular level of academic achievement.”

In practice

This may sound complex and may cause concern for some practitioners but the GDC insists the sorts of issues being dealt with are the same as those previously considered under Standards for Dental Professionals. It has also pledged to take a “proportionate approach”, allowing dentists enough time to familiarise themselves with the requirements and make any necessary changes to ensure compliance.

Tim Wright, project and implementation officer at the GDC, said: “This is the first time that we have published such clear guidance about advertising and it is important to strike the right balance between protecting patients and giving registrants the opportunity to remedy any problems.

“We are mindful that there may be registrants who are unwittingly not operating within the spirit of the guidance at present. If we deem it appropriate, we will send a written notice advising them to review their arrangements in line with the guidance.”

However dental professionals should not be complacent. Formal investigations would be initiated in more serious cases involving repeated complaints over time or “aggravating factors”, such as where dentists have lied about their qualifications or exaggerated the benefits of certain treatments.

Principles of ethical advertising is available at www.gdc-uk.org or for more specific advice, contact an MDDUS adviser.

Joanne Curran is associate editor of Summons

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