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Winning the public’s trust

19 June 2015

Winning the public’s trust

Hi everyone, and welcome to this week’s newsletter! Our focus this week is on a very important battle that dentists fight each and every day. The stakes are high, the odds are stacked against them and resistance seems futile. And no, we’re not talking about rampant caries, here.  We’re talking about the battle of public perception.

Dentistry gets bad press. It always has. Tuesday’s Daily Mail did the quite impressive job of summing up everything that is wrong about how the media portrays dentistry in 4 simple words: “Greedy Dentists Fleece Families”. As a headline, alone, that’s enough but the Mail really had it on for those dastardly dentists on June 16th. “They hide prices – Restrict NHS treatment – Force patients to have costly work – Needlessly pull teeth.”

With many citing fear of dentist as the things which rattle our nerves the most, it is quite depressing to see old, stereotyped scare-mongering still pervading popular perceptions of dentistry. Someone sitting at their desk in chronic tooth pain, but terrified of going to the dentist, will certainly be less likely to seek help after reading articles like that. It is certainly depressing in 2015 that these kinds of outdated perceptions can still make front page news.

But… the tide may be beginning to turn on such negative representations of dentistry. The recent BBC documentary “The Truth about your Teeth” did a fine job of trying to undo fear of the dentist, in both the patients featured and the viewers, themselves, by portraying dentists in a professional, accessible and, ultimately, human light.

As well as reinforcing the basic, core messages about maintaining good oral health, the programme also featured advice on how to handle fear of the dentist and approaching that first appointment. They advised to not arrive too early as the sounds and smells will add to your anxiety, let you dentist know about your phobia and make sure that the first visit is pain free. If you don’t like the sounds or bright lights, they advise to bring music or a tablet to distract you.

This kind of practical advice is necessary to undo the kind of damaging commentary that dentistry usually gets in the mainstream media. It’s really important for the voice of reason and common sense to be heard over the din of sensationalist headlines and lame condemnation. Having a show on prime time television is a crucial, important step in getting positive messages about oral health and dentistry out there but, after the reaction to the latest Which? report, much more needs to be done.

Sarah Vine, in her Daily Mail column, commented on the findings of the Which? report by calling NHS dentistry “little more than a cruel con”, as well as bemoaning the “waiting times, the sharp practices, the poor standards of care – or even that dentists accepting patients on the NHS are now as rare as… well, hens’ teeth.” Apart from lacking any humour, this kind of assessment does absolutely no justice to the situation on the ground for many dentists.

The BDA’s response was much more level and relevant. Mick Armstrong said: “The Government remains committed to a byzantine system that has failed both dentists and their patients… Many would like to see more patients, but this is impossible within rigid contracts… Money being clawed back from dentistry is not being reinvested in dentistry.”

Dentists fight a war every day to try and protect people’s oral health. That other war, that of public perception, is a fight that dentistry has not yet overcome. The BBC documentary is a start, but that is victory in just one battle, in what will be an ongoing war for some time to come.

Do dentists get a bad reputation, and is this perpetuated by the media? What can be done, if anything, to change this public perception? As always, comment below or send us your thoughts here

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