The Biggest Lie in Healthcare and a Smaller Lie – Podcast

The Biggest Lie in Healthcare and a Smaller Lie – Podcast

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Session 19. The Biggest Lie in Healthcare (and a Smaller Lie)

By Scott McDonald


The year was 1982 and I was visiting several dental schools to hear what the professors were telling their students what they needed to know in order to be successful in dentistry.  I was the new Marketing Manager of the California Dental Association and I wanted to learn what the Profession was all about. And then I heard it.  It was the first time I had heard the Biggest Lie in Healthcare but it was certainly not the last time.  Over the next 30 years I have heard the same lie in different versions.  Here it is just as the dental school professor said it:


“All you have to do is to be a great clinician and people will beat a path to your door.”


When the Lie is spoken, I often see dentists nodding sagely as this “bon mot.”  As a marketing professional, it seemed silly on its face.  The presumption is that patients have some way of understanding clinical quality as though some objective standard exists.   Both experience and research have proven beyond question that patients have no way of determining how good (or bad) their dentist is due to their clinical skills.  On the other hand, they judge practices, doctors, and staff upon whatever criteria they CAN use.  And in our work, we found that the real perceptions of expertise of a practice were entirely unrelated to clinical skills.


So, why should someone believe that your clinical expertise will mean more to patients and potential patients than your ability to communicate, lead staff, inspire compliance, manage dental care, or any other human virtue?  I think I know the answer: Vanity.


There is a belief that if only dentists could just treat teeth well (perfectly), all would be right in the World.  After all, isn’t “perfection” the standard for adequate dental care? The entire focus of most dental meetings and continuing education seems to be upon this goal.  New materials, new techniques, new technologies, and new tools all have sing the siren-song of the clinician.  But the sad truth is, these sirens can draw the ships of practice onto the rocks of practice failure.  Clinical expertise may be important, even vital.  But if that is the sole focus of a practice, that practice will fail.


PLEASE don’t get the idea that I am espousing anything less than clinical excellence!  High standards, including standards of cleanliness and outstanding treatment are vital.  But when the Profession places the Golden Fleece of Practice exclusively upon the shoulders of clinical skill, those of us who know and love dental professionals cannot help but cringe a little.  That is because we know a truth or two that seems too often ignored. 


“Dentistry is a People Business; Not a THING Business or a Business of TECHNIQUE.”


Your ability to communicate effectively with your patients and potential-patients is the thing that will help you to fulfill your professional responsibilities.  That is why those of us involved intimately in dental marketing know that if your staff is not training in good communications skills and the doctor is not skilled in persuasively explaining his diagnosis, no amount of clinical skill can compensate.  The bitter truth is: unless it hurts, squirts blood, or falls out, patients have no way to determine the “quality” of your clinical skills.  And even if it does hurt, squirt blood, or falls out, you may have done exactly what the standard clinical procedure required!  Stuff happens in a patient’s mouth when you aren’t there. 


And this leads to the second Biggest Lie in Dentistry:


“Effective advertising alone will save a practice.”


In fact, real marketers know that effective advertising can KILL a practice quickly if the internal marketing strategy is not in place and working.  In other words, getting people to know about a practice that does not have its “act together” is like shouting, “We are terrible!”  The word gets around pretty quickly.  Therefore, dependence upon a magic formula of advertising is certainly not the only answer.  We may draw patients into the office who will be convinced of your personal attractiveness and the desirability of the services you offer but unless the doctors and staff have people skills AND a communications strategy to help these potential patients, it is like pouring water into a colander.  It is a waste. Worse, it is a hand-grenade waiting to explode in your pants pocket.


For all these reasons, we have to make sure that the communications policies that patients will experience and will form the basis of their judgments of the practice are the first steps to successful growth.  From our perspective as a company that does Marketing Plans for practices and has done so in every State in the U.S. and for every specialty and practice model these lies must be put to rest if you and your practice are going to thrive in an age when communication technology allows for the message of your practice to get out nearly instantaneously.   Blind dependence upon Clinical Skill and Advertising will hurt the practice much more than it helps.


Scott McDonald is the President and Owner of Scott McDonald & Associates, Inc, the nation’s largest vendor of demographic and psychographic analysis for dental practices in the United States.  The company can help evaluate locations, provide market research, and help identify target markets.

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