Promoting dental practices is still just about as painful as pulling teeth

 

MEDIA&MARKETING:AFTER PRESSURE from the Competition Authority, the Dental Council has finally loosened up its rules regarding self-promotion by dentists practising in the Republic of Ireland. But has it really? asks SIOBHÁN O'CONNELL

Last year, the authority reported that lack of competition in dental services was pushing up prices. Authority chairman Bill Prafiska said at the time: "Consumers are paying too much for dental services in Ireland. This is not surprising given the rules that are currently in place. Consumers are in the dark when it comes to shopping around for a dentist. Why shouldn't dentists advertise and compete on the same terms as any other business?"

Under the old rules advertising was pretty much forbidden. Dentists were not allowed to advertise their prices, offer discounts or canvas for each other's customers. And consumers did not have the option of going directly to qualified dental hygienists for hygiene services and dentures.

In response to the report, the Dental Council has produced a new code of practice on public relations and communications for dentists. If the code is supposed to represent a new era of free market glasnost, one wonders what the old prohibitions were like.

For instance, dentists are allowed to communicate "appropriate professional information" to the public. However, the code goes on: "Dentists should avoid personal publicity whether in press, radio, television or other media where such publicity could result in his/her gaining professional advantage.

"When being interviewed on radio or television, dentists should make every effort to avoid linking name, profession and address. Similarly in letters or articles for the lay press, the dentist should ensure that his or her name, profession and practice address are not published simultaneously."

As for advertising, don't expect a leaflet through your door offering discounts on crowns or dentures. The new code permits dentists to adopt a "collective approach" to the promotion of dental health in local media. However, the code stipulates: "The names of individual dentists should not be disclosed."

So if dentists still can't publicise or advertise individual practices, where's the competitive pressure going to emerge from?

Over to Carol Boate, advocacy division manager in the Competition Authority: "The guidelines are not perfect but you have to remember we have come from a situation where dentists were literally not allowed to advertise at all," she said.

Persuading the Dental Council about the merits of advertising seems to have been a bit like pulling teeth. The new code appears to make a mockery of what the Competition Authority set out to achieve.

Meanwhile, dental practices in Northern Ireland and eastern Europe are advertising away. Emmet O'Neill, founder of the Smiles dental clinics, isn't permitted to employ dentists. So the dentists in his clinics don't work directly for the company. The arrangement means that while these dentists can't advertise, Smiles can.

Most dentists, at least the established ones, are nonplussed about advertising bans because they're so busy. However, O'Neill believes that, in the downturn, that attitude may have to change. Smiles's annual ad budget runs to €150,000 and a recent radio campaign on iRadio in Galway, featuring the sounds of drills and music from Jaws, worked exceptionally well, according to O'Neill. He added that consumers will respond to price promotions for tooth-whitening treatments, but not for permanent treatments like veneers and crowns.

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Gerry Ryan's morning radio show on 2FM hasn't yet secured a sponsor for the year ahead. But Ian Dempsey on Today FM has had better luck. Mobile operator 3 is paying €750,000 to be his show's title sponsor for the next 12 months. In return, 3 gets six brand mentions during each show as well as mentions in every trailer broadcast on Today FM promoting the show, a package of radio ad spots and five week-long promotions through the year. Susan Branchflower, head of marketing at 3, says Dempsey is a better fit for the brand than Ryan because the Today FM presenter has better reach among 18- 35 year olds. 3 entered the mobile market two years ago and claims 6 per cent market share.

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