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Why Today’s Tele-Dentistry Model Doesn’t Work

May 21, 2022  By: Dr. Brian Harris
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As I sit in my backyard in Phoenix, Arizona the sun is just starting to peek over the horizon. My wife and four children are still asleep inside, and today marks their 19th day in isolation during the COVID-19 crisis. It’s only 6 a.m. and I have already seen two patients.

I know, this sounds like the opening scene of the new Mad Max movie but it’s not. This is the life of a dentist in the spring of 2020. My name is Dr. Brian Harris, but most know me as The Virtual Dentist.

It’s crazy to me that only three weeks ago the concept of virtual consults was cutting edge, and now it is the new normal. Two weeks ago, there were only a few companies in the tele-dentistry space, but last week alone I saw seven new companies come out with virtual consult solutions. All of this has made it extremely confusing for the dental community to know who to trust, what to do and how much it will cost. And the one thing nobody seems to be talking about is the fact tele-dentistry as it is currently being used doesn’t really work. Let me explain.

Medical versus Dental

The tele-medicine model has exploded in medicine as it allows doctors to leverage their time and see more patients in a day. It also provides access to care for many patients in need across the world. 

In medicine, the business model is centered around the doctor listening to patients describe their symptoms, asking questions and then providing medications and advice. They get paid to consult with people. That isn’t the case in dentistry. The advice we can give is limited. For us to really know what to do, we need to see the patient in person, take an X-ray, look in the mouth and then make a diagnosis. We get paid for the procedures we do, not the advice we give. 

With that being said, I DO believe using virtual consult technology to connect and communicate with patients is the single best thing you can do for your practice, especially now. But the success is in the CONNECTION, not the consultation. 

The Story Behind the Virtual Dentist

For any of this to make sense, I need to take you back to January 2017. I had just finished a long week of drill and fill dentistry and was exhausted. I mentioned to my wife how amazing it would be to show up to work each day and only do the procedures I loved. Naturally she responded with, “So why don’t you?” I rolled my eyes (without her seeing of course) and told her dentistry just doesn’t work that way.

What she said next completely changed the trajectory of my career as a cosmetic dentist. She said, “Brian, the problem is everyone knows you are a dentist, but nobody knows what you do. The people in the neighborhood, people you went to high school with and the people we go to church with all know you are a dentist, but they really don’t know WHAT you do unless they have personally come to see you for treatment. You should start posting your before and after cases on social media so they can see what you do.”

As difficult as it was, I took her advice. It felt so uncomfortable at first, but it worked. Within two weeks I received a message from someone named Kendall asking for my help. This 22-year-old college student hated her smile. She said it was starting to impact her personal life and she didn’t know what to do.

My initial instinct was to respond with, “Hey Kendall, here is the office number. Call in the morning and schedule a consult with me.” But before I hit send, I paused and thought “I wonder what her smile actually looks like? Maybe if I have her send me a photo, I can give her some options right now.”   

When I saw the photo, I instantly knew I could help her. I began to message her back with different options, but it felt so impersonal typing it all out. So, I decided to record a video of myself sharing how I could improve her smile.   

As I started talking, the first words out of my mouth were, “Kendall, I can help you.” As I said it, I actually felt a personal connection with her even though I was just talking to a computer screen.  I went on for 10 minutes to personally introduce myself, go over her options, and share the cost of treatment. I ended the video with an invitation to come meet with me in person. 

Even though I was just recording a video, I felt a real human connection and like I was truly helping her, even if she decided not to make an appointment. She was blown away by the response and came in a week later. There was already a trusting relationship formed even though we were meeting face to face for the first time. She already knew how much treatment would cost, allowing us to start simple cosmetic dentistry that day. A few weeks later I received a notification that someone had tagged me in a photo on Instagram. When I opened my phone, I saw a picture of Kendall on Instagram pointing to the big smile on her face and thanking me for helping her.

Becoming the Virtual Dentist

At that very moment, I realized there are millions of patients like Kendall who are struggling with their smile but have no idea who to trust, what to do or how much treatment might cost them. The exact same thing most of you are experiencing right now trying to figure out tele-dentistry is what patients experience when looking for a dentist. 

I wondered what it would be like if I started doing all my consults this way. How many more people could I reach? How many more lives could I impact? How many more people could I serve? This is the moment I became The Virtual Dentist.

I have since recorded more than 4,000 virtual consults and my schedule is currently booked out for five months with smile design cases alone. I mentor hundreds of other “Virtual Dentists” who use the software I helped develop. Smile Virtual connects patients looking to improve their smile with dentists from all over the world. As Smile Virtual Dentists, we understand the “virtual consult” is not what makes us successful. The success lies in the Smile Virtual process of attracting, connecting, converting and treating patients. It’s a methodology and system that has taken three years of trial and error as a practicing dentist to figure out, and it works.

It’s About Building Trust

We are living during a time where trust, transparency and convenience are the three most important things we can offer our patients. People want to do business with people they trust. The best way to build trust is to create total transparency with your pricing and to make it convenient for patients to do business with you. We are competing for people’s time now more than ever before.

As the world gets back to work after two months of being quarantined at home, do you really think your patients are going to want to come to your office for a dental consult? People aren’t going to have the luxury to take time off work. My challenge to you is to look for ways to create more transparency in your practice and serve people at the highest level possible. Make it easy for patients to do business with you. If you do, you will create happy paying patients who return often and refer their family and friends.   

If you want to continue the discussion feel free to reach out. I’m @drbrianharris on social media or you can email me brian@drbrianharris.com. For more information about how you can start offering virtual consults in your practice, visit smilevirtual.com.

Dr. Brian Harris

Dr. Brian Harris and his innovative ideas around cosmetic dentistry and patient communication will transform the way you practice dentistry. He is recognized in dentistry for helping doctors use virtual consult technology to attract and treat more complex restorative and smile cases in their practice. He is a 2005 graduate of the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry and a practicing dentist in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a recognized key opinion leader having presented to audiences large and small more than 250 times in five different countries.

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