What Policies Should Dentists Be Aware of When Marketing to Patients?
by Tyson Downs
*Originally published March 2nd, 2016, Updated May 15, 2019.
Let’s face it, if you want more patients, then you are going to need to do some marketing. But times have changed, haven’t they? Marketing is not like it used to be, especially for dentists who relied heavily on word-of-mouth referrals. Years ago, it was easier to obtain new patients. These days, however, it’s often difficult to even get noticed, let alone stand out among the many (sometimes dozens) practices in your market.
Before most people began using the Internet, marketing for dentists primarily involved placing ads in the Yellow Pages. It was a great way to attract new patients, but things have certainly changed since then. Patients have several ways to find a dentist and are more particular when making a choice.
Now, patients often try to self diagnose what is wrong with their teeth and gums, and if they end up needing a dentist, they’ll perform an online search, or check with their insurance and choose a dentist who they feel fits their needs. Patients are a lot more savvy about their options these days. First to appear in the Yellow Pages doesn’t mean anything.
As a result of these industry-wide changes, dentists (and all doctors really) have had to get their marketing online and adapt their digital healthcare marketing strategies to not only find, but also acquire their ideal patients. Furthermore, web marketing for dentists has evolved alongside market trends and government regulations.
When it comes to marketing ideas for a dental office, there are some policies that you should be aware of.
Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act)
When creating and delivering dental promotions, it’s good to start out by reviewing the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act).
As a general rule, you can’t claim or imply overall superiority over your competition when it comes to the quality of dental services offered. Because your audience won’t be able to properly verify these claims without having to visit every dental office in the area, it’s best to avoid this kind of claim altogether.
In addition, you should also follow the rules we’ve outlined below to avoid violating the FTC Act:
- Don't mislead or deceive (via partial disclosure of relative facts)
- Don't make false claims to create unjustified expectations
- Don't guarantee uncharacteristic results
- Don't distort facts
- Don't misrepresent charges
- Don't suggest unusual conditions
This goes hand-in-hand with the American Dental Association’s Code of Professional Conduct, Section 5F:
Although any dentist may advertise, no dentist shall advertise or solicit patients in any form of communication in a manner that is false or misleading in any material aspect.
As a business professional, this makes sense. You don’t want your patients’ expectations to be misaligned with what you offer as a dental practice.
Remember to be careful with the words you choose. Before publishing anything to the market, it’s a good idea to have an outside party review your marketing materials to verify that all messages are clear before publication and that you are not in violation of any of the conduct codes set forth by government and industry agencies. Sometimes this can be hard to spot, which is why hiring experienced professionals is worth the value it can add.
Marketing Dental Practices and HIPAA Compliance
If you’re reading this, chances are you know that internet marketing for dentists can transform your practice. It’s no secret that the internet can help you build a robust practice that provides help to many patients.
Online marketing services such as search engine optimization (dental SEO), social media, and email marketing can attract a knowledgeable group of patients. There patients will essentially make a decision based on their own research results, and if you can help ‘feed’ them information, then you will be seen as the expert. SEO helps to position your dental practice in front of the right audience, but it’s not an overnight success. It takes a lot of dedication on behalf of the dentist to make those efforts work long-term.
In other words, if you’re not using effective internet marketing strategies, your potential patients will have a difficult time finding you. Even worse, they will probably find a competitor who is marketing effectively. With all of the ways the internet provides you to reach patients, it also provides your competitors the same access. Patients have a right to choose, and they might not always choose your practice.
When it comes to being HIPAA compliant, remember patient privacy above all else. When developing your healthcare marketing strategy, create campaigns that don’t include the use of patient data (regardless of whether they’re existing patients or potential patients). These are simple strategies you can follow to ensure you are not in violation of any codes of conduct and rules.
Overall, you want complete clarity when it comes to the rules around public and private data, remembering especially that sharing patient data is not okay.
Internet Marketing for Dentists and Marketing Data
Did you know that you can target specific individual profiles online to put your dental practice in front of the right people? One of the easiest ways to do this is with Facebook Ads.
If you want more details about how to run successful Facebook ads, check out our post regarding Facebook.
As a business owner making advertisements and claims, you are allowed to collect certain types of data to make your campaigns more effective. However, this information is usually limited to the following:
- Phone Number
- Email address
You can collect this information through social media, emails, surveys, online forms, or by other approved means of collecting user data.
The most effective way to obtain this information from website visitors is by giving them something in return for sharing that data. For example, providing a downloadable document that teaches patients something is a simple way to get patients to offer up their email. This could be something like a free PDF download on your top 5 ways to keep your teeth healthy. Patients who want this information will submit their email address to receive the document in their inbox. This is referred to as email marketing.
It may look something like the below. (Compliments of Techila)
You don’t always have to give away a free download to get someone’s email address to start marketing to them through email. While you can’t (and shouldn’t) just spam email people without their consent, you can obtain emails through other methods.
For example, you might run a special where you offer free Invisalign consultations. In order to book a consultation, you ask the patient to sign up and give you their email.
You can see how that can be effective in helping to grow your email list, as well as your marketing reach, and potential patient list. All that’s happening is you are asking those that have an interest in a service if they’d like to talk to you about it a little bit more. Most people will oblige.
Because the information that you collected from the online forms is marketing-oriented (and not anything to do with any relationship with your dental practice), you’re allowed to use this data to contact them directly.
Private data can’t be used in conjunction with internet marketing, but you must take necessary steps to avoid breaking the rules. If you fail to do so and break HIPAA rules, then you will be faced with not only losing your license, but also possible jail time. We’re not just talking about email lists here; we’re talking about violation of patient privacy.
The best way to get around this issue is to manage your patient data separately. If you’re using customer relationship management software (CRM) to manage appointments, make sure that it isn’t linked to the database with patient health data.
When Do Policy Issues Arise?
Policy violations and problems can come up when your digital marketing campaigns include Protected Health Information (PHI). Although most marketing strategies for dental practices will not involve any private health information, we recommend that you thoroughly read the code to fully grasp what’s allowed. Educating yourself on the rules and regulations is the best way to stay ahead of the problems.
PHI essentially has two vital components:
1. Health-related data must be comprised of information related to the past, present, or future physical care the patient received and any payment that was received.
2. The data has to be specifically refer to the dates associated with patient care, last name, address, email address, telephone number, social security number, medical record number, health plan, photographs, fingerprints, or voice prints.
Basically, for problems related to PHI compliance to occur, the data must include both of these components.
Where To Turn Now
If you’re feeling a bit apprehensive about moving forward with internet marketing after reading this, then don’t worry!
We aren’t trying to scare you. It’s our job to inform dentists of how we can help them avoid such violations.
Before launching any marketing campaign, take some time to ensure that you properly investigate your marketing campaign fully and make sure that you’re not violating any government policies.
Let’s take an in-depth look at PHI with the help of some examples to clarify solutions.
Policy Violation Example 1
You have a patient who is an NBA star from your local team and you want to take advantage of this relationship.
You want to promote the fact that this athlete comes to your practice on your social media platforms. This seems like a logical way to promote the business and ride a little claim to fame, which makes sense, right?
It can add credibility to your practice, help you build your online presence, and attract new patients.
But you didn’t get permission from the basketball player to share this information or you failed to get signed consent.
In this scenario, if you shared this information without permission, it is a clear violation and improper use of your patient’s private health information.
Even if it’s exciting and flattering to have celebrity patients, you have to respect the fact that they are also protected by HIPAA - which your practice needs to adhere to.
If you think that you or your staff can’t maintain confidentiality, don’t accept a celebrity patient.
Policy Violation Example 2
Let’s say that you’re building an email list to send to your current patients. To create this list you collect email addresses from two locations:
- Intake form (in the office)
- Your website
Both the form and website state that patients aren’t required to share any information as it’s for marketing purposes only. There’s no request on the site or the form asking for private information (and the email address is optional).
However, you also state that the information submitted will be used for marketing purposes, but private patient information won’t be included.
As you want to send them the most relevant information, you sync their contact information with your dental practice management software.
Can you do this?
No obtaining information in the guise of marketing and then using their personally identifying, private, healthcare records.
Policy Violation Example 3
You want to start a dental hygiene newsletter to target new patients. A lot of your current patients have already signed up for the newsletter on your website. Further, many regular patients also show interest in receiving the newsletter when you mention it during appointments.
You go ahead and compile email addresses from the website, along with those email addresses from the patients who expressed interest in the newsletter.
In this scenario, your newsletter campaign is only half HIPAA compliant. The email addresses that you collected from the website are compliant while the list you created verbally violates HIPAA regulations.
Even though the patient gave you consent verbally, no written consent was acquired to add them to the newsletter list.
And seeing as they are your existing patients, they have not been properly informed as to how their information will be used.
Digital Engagement is Rewarding, But Requires Care
Considering all these rules and regulations, you may feel like throwing your hands up in the air and avoid getting started with marketing your dental practice online.
But is that the right choice?
The short answer is no. A better choice would be to engage in social media the right way.
If you take the necessary precautions when collecting patient or potential patient data, you can confidently execute your marketing efforts while staying compliant without worry.
Don’t be afraid of getting started with social media because the rewards can be huge. The best approach is to develop strict guidelines for yourself and your staff to follow. At the end of the day, traditional marketing methods like the Yellow Pages are now almost irrelevant and avoiding online engagement would mean missing out on opportunities to expand your practice.
Thousands of patients in your area are already active on social media, so even if you avoid it, you might already have a presence on Google, Yelp, and Facebook. It’s better to take ownership of your profiles and manage it on a regular basis rather than lose out on the opportunities.
One way to take advantage of the social media opportunities for your dental practice is to create local listings on these websites, and add your social media profiles to the listing. This approach also offers SEO benefits because you are getting a link to your social profile, and Google (as well as other search engines) will see your business as more relevant. And of course, we know that claiming local directory listings such as this is beneficial, and can help improve your local search results. Remember that internet marketing is an ongoing process.
What’s The Best Way To Share Pictures and Videos Online?
If you want to share pictures and videos of your practice online that feature patients, past or current, you must obtain written consent before taking any videos or pictures of patients. Simply give them a waiver to sign during new patient intake or while updating information of current patients and inform them that from time to time you like to showcase pictures on the website, social media platforms, or wherever else you intend to use the photos. You can also take it a step further and verify consent during each visit.
When you take pictures of patients, have an idea as to how you will use them ahead of time so the patient can understand the motive for wanting the pictures in the first place. You can also ask patients during their visit to like your posts and share them on certain social media platforms. If you upload to your Facebook Page, for example, you can even ask patients to tag themselves in your pictures.
This can, in turn, drive more visitors to your page without the fear of violating any regulations.
It’s also good practice to be careful in allowing patients to take pictures at your practice. Patients might take pictures of their kids or themselves while at an appointment, but these images might include other patients in the background and this can cause issues.
It’s not likely, but possible. And you want to minimize risk when it comes to these guidelines and ensure that everyone feels safe in your dental office.When you develop your own photography policy, consider including rules on patient rights at your premises as well and post this policy in multiple places in your office. Ensuring patients have access to this information and are reminded of your photography policies when they enter the premises will help avoid problems.
Compliance in Marketing is Crucial and Simple
Being in compliance with these rules and regulations is simple but takes practice. A good rule of thumb is to always act in the best of interest of your patient. Think about times in your life when you were not treated fairly in email lists or when someone had your contact information that you didn’t want them to have. If you aren’t sure, ask. How has government regulation impacted your marketing efforts?
Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below. We’d love to know what you are doing to stay compliant in your dental practice marketing efforts.
About the Author
Tyson Downs, the owner of Titan Web Agency, has years of experience working with small businesses and helping them meet their revenue goals. Prior to starting Titan Web Agency, he freelanced in SEO and Web Design while working in the corporate world. Tyson is a graduate of Brigham Young University, the father of 5, and enjoys spending time with his family. Particularly on the baseball field.