David Fitterling is the Director of Business Development at DentalMonitoring. Their product, SmileMate, is a virtual consultation platform that can be used by dentists to reach more high-value patients on their terms. I had a conversation with David about virtual consultation, where we are, and where we’re going.
Dr. Joshua Austin: I think the pandemic fundamentally changed the way people do business with their providers. I know that I’m frustrated when a retail store doesn’t have an option where I can order from an app or the web and get curbside pickup. Do you think that extends beyond retail to professional service providers? Obviously, we can’t offer whitening by curbside pickup, but do you think potential patients expect more when it comes to how they interact with us versus pre-COVID?
David Fitterling: Absolutely! Two years ago, I couldn’t even fathom ordering food and having it delivered. How lazy must people be, I thought. Now, it’s almost become second nature, especially after a week of travel. Technology had been changing consumer expectations well before COVID; the pandemic just expedited the demand for convenience. But as we both know, dentistry can sometimes be a little late to the adoption of tech and change.
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JA: Why do you think that dentists are usually a little late on adopting new things?
DF: Growing up and being part of this industry my entire life, I think much of it has to do with fear. First, most dentists are clinicians at heart with little background in business. They’re systems people. Once a process is built and works, it becomes difficult to change or deviate from that process. Also, when things are “working” and going well from a business or financial prospective, why change? Change is scary, especially when it can impact your livelihood. Skating to where the puck is going can be a difficult business concept for many to grasp, even for nonclinicians.
JA: How can a dentist “see where the puck is going” and add some new components or touchpoints for prospective patients?
DF: It’s important to spend time looking outside the field of dentistry and study what’s happening in other businesses regarding consumer behaviors. Attend business-forward webinars [and look for] podcasts or books that challenge your comfort zone. My father used to always say his favorite CE courses were those had absolutely nothing to do with the clinical component. Find easy-to-integrate technology such as our SmileMate platform that aren’t completely out of your comfort zone but maybe allow you to take a small step in the direction you know you need to be heading toward.
JA: You mention SmileMate, which is a service for which I am a paying subscriber. Tell us a little bit about SmileMate and how you think it fits in with today’s patient demands.
DF: SmileMate is virtual platform that uses artificial intelligence, backed by our largest AI platform, DentalMonitoring. With more than 1 billion images analyzed by deep learning through our technology, SmileMate is a patient assessment tool that helps uncover concerns found within photos a patient is asked to upload to your website. From there you can verify the findings and share with the patient a report of what concerns you as a doctor have and give them options to come in for further evaluations, or connect though a HIPAA-compliant video chat within the platform for 10 minutes to discuss their concerns. This helps build trust, which can also lead to reducing fear. As I mentioned earlier, consumers also want convenience, which this obviously helps with.
JA: We have had good luck with converting our SmileMate submissions into patients. Do you have any internal data on that? What percentage of patients who do an online consult end up pursuing treatment with that doctor?
DF: Glad to hear that you’ve had success converting consumers into patients through this platform, and that’s not surprising as it’s incredible technology and fits into today’s busy lifestyles. It’s difficult to answer your question as every doctor uses the platform differently, but I hear from different users it’s around 30%. It’s more important to understand what your average lifetime value (LTV) of a dental patient is and that for $2,000 a year, you can use a technology to better educate patients for increased case acceptance or reach a new demographic you’re currently missing. If you capture just one new patient, you will already be ahead from a profitability perspective.
JA: I know there are a few other options for virtual consultation platforms. Can you tell me what makes SmileMate different?
DF: Artificial intelligence! What many people don’t realize is that we have analyzed over 1 billion photos using deep learning that is trained to detect a wide variety of problems in the mouth. So that way you can open up the screening, verify the findings, and give your recommendations on what should be done next. Without AI, you, as a doctor, have to spend several minutes per photo doing the analysis yourself. Time is money. Our technology creates automation, and automation creates scalability.
JA: I will attest that the AI is pretty good. But the AI can only be as good as the photos are. Some patients aren’t great at getting the photos. What have you guys done and what can you do to help deal with this?
DF: This is a tricky one. We continuously work on creating and updating the content on the platform with better instructional videos. However, we have many practices that create their own YouTube videos with a staff member and send those out to patients, as well. You can also use this as an excuse to have them come in for further evaluation.
JA: At this stage of the pandemic, what are the next steps for virtual consultations?
DF: You have to start somewhere and that somewhere starts with hiring someone like Brian Wright and his team at New Patient Group. This allows you to bring in a coach and help teach your team the verbiage to “at least” start offering this as an option. From there, you also want to make sure you have a coach to teach them how to present and sell through a screen as it’s completely different. I’m not talking about selling treatment, but selling next steps in patient care, which could be for them to come in for an exam.
It’s also important to understand that SmileMate isn’t just a virtual consult tool. It’s an AI-based digital patient assessment platform. We have offices that use it for building better relationships for their patients, and practices that use it as you are. I never recommend a dental practice jump all-in and start by tackling VCs. Send the link out to patients prior to their new-patient exam, sharing with them the importance of uploading photos and how it will help with their exam. I love what New Patient Group has done with several of our users: they’ve created welcome videos from the team that get sent out at the same time. It’s a great way to start building that trust and easing fear.