David Fitterling is 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 the virtual consultation, where we are and where we are going.
Dr. Joshua Austin: I think the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way people do business with their suppliers. I know I get frustrated when a retail store doesn’t have the ability to order from an app or the web and get curbside pickup. Do you think this extends beyond retail to professional service providers? Obviously, we can’t offer curbside pickup whitening, but do you think potential patients expect more in terms of how they interact with us compared to pre-COVID?
David Fitterling: Absolutely! Two years ago, I couldn’t even imagine ordering food and having it delivered. How lazy people must be, I thought. Now it has almost become second nature, especially after a week of travelling. Technology had changed consumer expectations long before COVID; the pandemic has just accelerated the demand for convenience. But as we both know, dentistry can sometimes be a little behind in embracing technology and change.
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JA: Why do you think dentists are generally a little late in embracing new things?
FD: Growing up and being part of this industry all my life, I think it has a lot to do with fear. First, most dentists are clinicians at heart with little business experience. They are people of the system. Once a process is built and working, it becomes difficult to change or deviate from that process. Also, when things “work” and are going well from a commercial or financial point of view, why change? Change is scary, especially when it can impact your livelihood. Skating where the puck goes can be a difficult business concept for many, even non-clinicians.
JA: How can a dentist “see where the puck is going” and add new components or touchpoints for potential patients?
FD: It’s important to spend time looking outside the realm of dentistry and studying what’s happening in other businesses when it comes to consumer behaviors. Attend business-focused webinars [and look for] podcasts or books that challenge your comfort zone. My father always said that his favorite CE classes were those that had absolutely nothing to do with the clinical aspect. Find easy-to-integrate technologies such as our SmileMate platform that aren’t completely out of your comfort zone, but perhaps allow you to take a small step in the direction you know you need to be.
JA: You mention SmileMate, which is a service to which I am a paying subscriber. Tell us a bit about SmileMate and how you think it fits in with the demands of today’s patients.
FD: SmileMate is a virtual platform that uses artificial intelligence, supported by our largest AI platform, DentalMonitoring. With over a billion images analyzed by deep learning using our technology, SmileMate is a patient assessment tool that helps uncover issues found in photos a patient is asked to upload to your website. . From there, you can check the results and share a report with the patient about what’s on your mind as a doctor and give them the option to come in for further assessments, or connect via compliant video chat. HIPAA within the platform for 10 minutes to discuss their concerns. This helps build confidence, which can also lead to reducing fear. As I mentioned earlier, consumers also want convenience, which obviously helps.
JA: We have been lucky with converting our SmileMate submissions into patients. Do you have any internal data on this? What percentage of patients who make an online consultation end up undergoing treatment with this doctor?
FD: Glad to hear that you have been successful in converting consumers to patients with this platform, and it’s no surprise as it’s amazing technology and fits into today’s hectic lifestyles. It’s hard to answer your question because every doctor uses the platform differently, but I hear from different users that 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 technology to better educate patients for better case acceptance or reach a new demographic group that you are currently missing. If you capture just one new patient, you will already be ahead from a profitability standpoint.
JA: I know there are a few other options for virtual consultation platforms. Can you tell me what makes SmileMate different?
FD: Artificial intelligence! What many people don’t realize is that we’ve analyzed over a billion photos using trained deep learning to detect a wide variety of problems in the mouth. This way, you can open the screening, check the results, 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 can attest that the AI is pretty good. But AI can’t be as good as photos. Some patients are not good at getting the pictures. What have you guys done and what can you do to help deal with this?
FD: It’s delicate. We are continuously working on creating and updating content on the platform with better instructional videos. However, many practices create their own YouTube videos with a staff member and send them to patients as well. You can also use this as an excuse to bring them in for further evaluation.
JA: At this point in the pandemic, what are the next steps for virtual consultations?
FD: You have to start somewhere and it starts somewhere with hiring someone like Brian Wright and his team at the 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 because that’s completely different. I’m not talking about selling a treatment, I’m talking about selling the next steps in patient care, which could be for them to come in for a checkup.
It is also important to understand that SmileMate is not just a virtual consultation tool. It is an AI-based digital patient assessment platform. We have practices that use it to build better relationships with their patients, and practices that use it like you do. I would never recommend a dental practice to jump all the way and start tackling VCs first. Send the link to patients before their new patient exam, share with them the importance of uploading photos and how it will help them in their exam. I like what New Patient Group has done with several of our users: they have created team welcome videos that are sent out at the same time. It’s a great way to start building that trust and allaying the fear.