Almost on a daily basis, I receive a communication about an issue that, in the end, concludes that “someone ought to do something about this.” As a quick response I ask, “What are you going to do about it?” This, then, suggests my response to the question posed in the title of this editorial: “You are responsible to inform and protect the public.”
The individual “you”
On a personal basis, there are many ways that you interact with the public, but the prime opportunity is through your practice. Your everyday work at the office with your patients (ie, the public) is extremely important in the dissemination of information. You explain the benefits and risks of orthodontics to gain consent to treatment, you perform orthodontics, you talk about orthodontics, and you present yourself in a professional way; by doing all this, you send your patients out into the world with information that will be communicated to others. As opportunities arise, you might also inform the public through presentations to the PTA, the Rotary Club, and the like. You might also be called on to talk with local media. Of course, these observations and opportunities are not new to you, but they remain important vehicles to address the public.
What is relatively new to your practice is your Web site. It was probably constructed for the first time a few years ago; in that regard, it might be time to take a long look at what you are saying to the public through that source. A recent article in the British Dental Journal , “The quality of orthodontic practice websites,” by Parekh and Gill makes the point. (Thanks to Kevin O’Brien’s orthodontic blog for bringing this article to our attention.) These researchers looked at a sample of orthodontic Web sites in the United Kingdom and graded each using the LIDA Web-site assessment tool ( www.minervation.com ). This method of evaluating health care Web sites looks at the accessibility of the site, the usability of the information by patients, and the reliability of the orthodontic information provided. The Web sites involved were also evaluated as to their adherence to the Ethical Standards of Advertising established by the General Dental Council. As you might guess, it was concluded that the Web sites did not generally comply with the standards of ethical advertising. In addition, claims made about orthodontic efficiency and speed of treatment did not appear to be consistent with contemporary scientific knowledge.
What should this mean to you? When you initiated your Web site, you intended to influence your community, but what you did also invited the global community to learn about orthodontics from you. In so doing, it became even more important that the information you provide is accurate and high quality so that potential patients are well informed and their expectations are realistic.
Of course, the information on your site should not be misleading, false, or deceptive. A restatement of manufacturers’ claims of faster, better, and smarter should be avoided unless references to sound scientific evidence can be included on your site. Claims of unusual expertise and superiority must be avoided unless they can be documented with legitimate credentials and evidence. Absurd claims must be deleted. For example, the notion that a midline mandibular suture is a mechanism available for orthodontic exploitation during treatment of a typical orthodontic patient is anatomically ridiculous. Likewise, the notions that certain malocclusions affect fertility and certain orthodontic treatments somehow save lives are beyond reason.
What is to happen if we do not voluntarily scrutinize our own Web sites on a regular basis? It is an easy prediction that we will eventually and surely invite the creation of some manner of “peer review of Web sites.” That is not a hollow warning. As an example, the State Bar of Texas presently requires all of its members to submit their Web sites to peer review. One suspects that if lawyers believe that such a peer review system is a good thing, we will think so, too—and soon.
What else can you do? Of course, you can bring any concern to the attention of the local, state, or national dental associations because they have mechanisms in place to deal with many issues. Beyond that, if you note that an issue rises to the question of legality, then you can notify the dental board in your state. It is there to protect the public and will listen to your concerns and act as determined by available law.