Dr Derek Mahony is the Founder of Full Face Orthodontics in Australia. He describes what it’s like owning and running a specialist practice in Sydney.
Why did you become a dentist?
Dr Derek Mahony: I actually did not want to become a dentist. I was interested in doing medicine, and I think, I missed out by two marks. So, it was either go back and redo my final year at school, which wasn’t too appealing, or get into something, to then transfer into medicine. So, I got into dentistry which was the next sort of category, and then realised, I am pretty happy with this, and so ended up finishing.
But, what I liked during the dental course was the orthodontic side of things, because it dealt with growth and development. And, to me, I guess, in hindsight, the part of dentistry which is closest to medicine, is orthodontic sleep medicine, which I have ended up doing. So, I guess, I call myself, or view myself now, as an oral physician.
What are the biggest marketing challenges you face, and how do you deal with them?
Dr Derek Mahony: My biggest marketing challenge is keeping up to date with what’s new. And, literally, it changes every day. In my era, when I graduated, the only marketing you could do was a brass plaque outside the front of your practice. And, if the letters were 2mm higher than regulation, your competitor could ring up the Dental Council and say, “Look, that guy is in breach of advertising regulation.” And, the council would call you in and give you a talking to.
So, that’s the era I come from. The era now, it’s very consumer based, and it’s very internet consumer based. The majority of patients that I attract as an orthodontist are going to be that sort of group, that’s savvy with Instagram. Maybe, not so much Facebook. So I think the marketing challenge for me, is having the right content, but keeping it up to date with the media that people are most going to look at.
And I think, I myself as a consumer, would go onto someone’s website, and when you think it’s dated, and you think, “What sort of work is he doing?” Maybe not for certain medical specialities, like a cardiologist, who tend to have no media savvy, because it’s not an optional thing. You go in and see a cardiologist because you need to.
For orthodontists, 90 percent of what we do is optional. You want to look good, or you don’t. So, I think for the consumable income dollar, you do need to have a presence that is contemporary, because then people think, “Oh, he’s doing contemporary stuff”.
So that’s the important thing. And, I’m constantly getting my marketing people to look at my website – is it tech savvy for a smartphone? All this sort of thing. So really, if someone has a Bachelor of Comms, which in this country, is a Communications Degree, they also really need to have some sort of IT, as part of that, because the idea man is great, but the idea man putting it into a medium that you can utilise for your customers is what, I think, is also required.
When I was given a referral, back in the day, from a dentist, there would be no questions asked by the patient, they’d think, “Well, if he’s a specialist, and my general dentist, who I trust, is referring, then that’s it. Away I go.” Now, the first thing they do is Google. Even if they don’t intentionally want to Google, they Google how to get there, and of course, reviews come up.
So, Google Reviews are a big thing. And, unless you’re aware of what’s happening on Google, it could really kill you. So, it’s a twin-edged sword, it could be great thing but, here’s another frustration: most patients who are happy don’t want to tell the world. The people who do the Google Reviews, from my experience, tend to be those who have a minor problem, and of course, that’s their way to vent it.
Marketing has changed considerably. What does this mean for dentists? Is it easier or harder?
Dr Derek Mahony: I think it’s easier and harder.
It’s easier to have a worldwide presence, because the internet is worldwide. Harder, in that you can be quickly judged, without someone actually ever meeting you, if that makes sense. I think, the old marketing was word of mouth.
You think back to the days where you couldn’t do any advertising, the only way you got customers, was word of mouth. Your referring dentists saw good quality work, great, they’ll send another patient to you. If your patients were happy, they told their friends, and that was it. And, if they’re unhappy then, what would happen is, of course, you wouldn’t see them again, and you wouldn’t get referrals from them.
Now, if they’re unhappy, it’s trial by media. So, that’s the twin-edged sword. It’s easier to be out there, but it’s harder to maintain a good presence, 24-hours-a-day, on all the new media platforms.
What role does cosmetic dentistry play in your practice today, and what do you think the future holds?
Dr Derek Mahony: Well, as an orthodontist, where I get involved in cosmetic dentistry, is designing the smile. So, I work a lot with dentists who are about to do cosmetic makeovers for their patient, whether it’s bonding, or veneers, etc and they need the teeth in a better position for them to deliver the ideal aesthetics.
So, a brand new part of dentistry, which we weren’t exposed to in dental school, is now called digital smile design. So, it means that we can sit down with the patient, and we can show them visually on the software, what we could do for their smile.
What most cosmetic dentists are realising, to deliver that high end result, the teeth need to move. You can’t get someone whose teeth are everywhere, and then give them these veneers that are going to look at all natural. Whereas, if you can do some minor tooth movement, it makes the restorative less aggressive, but it makes it more natural.
The next program we’re organising is called Digital Smile Design. So, it’s a course, where I’ve been invited as one of the speakers, to talk about exactly this. So, what’s huge in dentistry at the moment, is cosmetic injectables, dermal fillers, botox, etc, as a way of finishing the smile. I know, I can’t quote the percentages, but when someone looks at someone for the first time, I think it’s the eyes are number one, the teeth number two.
And, of course, every person, male and female, as they get older to wants look younger. And, one way of making them look younger, is showing more teeth. We know as we get older, our upper lip gets longer, so the amount of incisor display diminishes. So, if you can give someone longer teeth, because they’ve worn them down, show more teeth, so the lip elevates. It makes a big impact to their facial aesthetics. And, that’s a big thing.
So, as far as cosmetic dentistry, even though I don’t do the veneers, I work with a team of specialists that do. It’s multi-disciplinary treatment.
How do you manage the dual roles of being a respected dentist and business owner?
Dr Derek Mahony: So, being respected by dentists in my field means being respected by referrers. Am I looking after patients well, that they refer to me? Am I up to date with contemporary orthodontics or whatever my specialty would be deemed as?
The Australian Dental Council, which is equivalent to the UK’s GDC, has come down heavily on advertising. The term is “ethical marketing”. There are certain things that you cannot allude to even and they have cut out testimonials.
The powers that be don’t want our profession to be seen purely as marketing people. They feel that some of the ethical dilemmas that are arising are from promising this and that.
I think a classic example is, recently in Australia, there have been a number of cosmetic surgeons who have been showing live surgeries on social media. And there have been other people who have done free treatments for influencers, so that influencer can then tell the whole world about whatever.
So, I think our Dental Council is trying to get away from that sort of direct-to-the-consumer marketing. And, you can’t purport yourself to be better than your colleague.
What tips would you have for dentists that are starting out?
Dr Derek Mahony: The cost of practicing dentistry has become exorbitant, such that the days of the single man private practice are gone. Two things we’re seeing as a trend in Australia: corporatisation of practices, and group practices.
So, I think, for a new graduate, before they consider hanging up their shingle for yet another single-man practice, they possibly should look for alternatives, such as working in a group environment, that would have access to the latest technology, that they would not be able to afford on their own. And that, I think, would be a good start in dentistry.
Otherwise, what will happen, they will be offering products that they’ve been taught to do as graduates, but possibly aren’t leading edge or contemporary, because of costs. The classic example would be some of the new technologies, such as lasers and the latest x-ray equipment.
I rely on referrals from dentists so I’m a little bit recession-proof, because people tend not to go for a specialist based on their insurer. Whereas nowadays, with the likes of Bupa, the majority of customers don’t really care who’s looking after their teeth. They’re more interested if they are a Bupa provider, where there’ll be no-payment gap.
What I’ve seen in 30 years in Australia, of being in private practice, people have been very loyal to one person, are now leaving that loyalty, and going for the bottom line which is the cost. The cost of dentistry in Australia is ridiculously expensive. There’s one recent report that showed that only 20 percent of patients in Australia can afford to see the dentist regularly or six-monthly.
Patients who need major work done, many are flying overseas to get that work done. Places like Malaysia, Thailand, etc. So, I think, from a new graduate’s point of view, the future is not rosy. There are more dentists here, and it’s more competitive. We have this drive by corporate health funds to bring the selling price of dentistry down to a market value.
So, my advice would be, if you are going to be successful, you need to have a unique selling point. You can’t be offering what every other dentist is offering, and expect to be busy. Look outside the box – sleep medicine is huge. Not many people go to the dentist and are examined correctly, as far as their airway. But the patient who sees a new dentist, and he picks up all these systemic problems, and they get better because of it, they are gonna be more loyal to that dentist, rather than the guy whose got 50 percent off whitening for the month of January.
As a profession, I wouldn’t be recommending my children to pursue a dental career. Simply because, year by year, it’s becoming over-regulated, number one. Number two, it’s very consumer demanding. Number three, your financial pre-compensation is not what it used to be in the golden era of dentistry.
What I predict is, the future of dentistry is corporatisation. But, I would say 10-20 years from now, over 80 percent of the practices in Australia, private practices, will be in some way affiliated with a corporate.