Man of the people

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Dr Larry Benge has used his thirty-plus years of experience to build a media career. He explains to Sue Nelson why dentists need to be proactive about their business and developing their public profile

Dr Larry Benge: professional golf’s loss is dentistry’s gain.
Dr Larry Benge: professional golf’s loss is dentistry’s gain.

Dr Larry Benge is well known to radio listeners in Melbourne and Sydney, where he has had stints as the ‘resident dentist’ on 3AW and on Steve Price’s show on 2GB. He practises aesthetic dentistry, pioneering the Malo Clinic for dental rehabilitation using implants in Australia, and has seen inside the mouths of many well-known footballers, tennis players and cricketers.

“If I hadn’t been a dentist I would have been a professional golfer—my parents stopped me doing that. My father told me to go and get an education first,” says Dr Benge who runs Bond Street Dental in Melbourne’s South Yarra. “I got into dentistry because one of my dear friends, my golfing partner, was training to be a dentist. He loved it and was very enthusiastic and I went and had a look at what he was doing and I was impressed—and I thought, that’s for me.”

Dr Benge joined the profession in 1981. In his three decades as a dentist, he has seen the profession change dramatically, and he is evangelical about the need for dentists to move with the times and adapt to new business challenges, including marketing their businesses effectively. “It’s almost like a different job in many ways,” he says. “Patient expectations have increased exponentially, perhaps due to the web and people Googling information before they pay a visit. They’re certainly a lot more savvy in terms of knowing what treatments are available. And they’re very demanding in terms of aesthetics.” 

Inside Bond Street Dental operating theatre.
Inside Bond Street Dental operating theatre.

In addition, Dr Benge believes, the dental industry is increasingly burdened by the twin issues of increased regulation and expense. “The industry is a lot more regulated than it was when I graduated,” he says. “The cost of running practices has increased astronomically; it’s much more expensive today. The sterility levels are much harder to achieve and the equipment one has to have in order to practise dentistry is through the roof in terms of its sophistication and also in terms of the cost of running a business. It’s becoming harder because it’s more competitive and yet more expensive. There’s quite a few challenges facing dentists today, and the cost problems are a major component of that.”

Dr Benge started in the profession practising in general dentistry and then went on to aesthetic dentistry. “Then we became the Malo Clinic of Australasia, which is the world leader in full mouth rehabilitation,” he says. “And that has changed the way I practise dentistry.”

Among other things, Dr Benge likes to examine the way dentistry is marketed and discussed in the public sphere. His website is a repository for the many podcasts he has disseminated on dental matters for radio and general interest. “There’s a very contentious issue around dental marketing,” he says. “The establishment view is that no-one should market dentistry—it cheapens the brand—but really today it has become a mainstream thing to do.

“We were the leaders when we went on radio and conducted seminars. Really what we did was to focus on supplying information, not to sell a product. I was very concerned, when I started to look at marketing, about not cheapening the profession. Our advertisements aim to provide information—we adhere to that very closely. We don’t offer freebies or try to push sales.

“It’s very heavily regulated by AHPRA [Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency]. You cannot give people information that may mislead people—that may give them the wrong idea of what can be done, or may give them the wrong expectation of the success of any treatment—so you have to be very careful about how you present what you do.”

“If you weren’t marketing today, and you were just waiting for people to turn up at your practice, you would need to rely on word of mouth,” says Dr Benge. “Patients are still going to come to your practice based on word of mouth—they’re still going to come if you’re an exceptional dentist. If you’re enthusiastic and gentle and treat people well, you’ll always have clients.”

But Dr Benge cautions that change is working against those dentists who disregard marketing. Dentists who don’t currently market their practices may well miss the opportunity to explain how they are different in an increasingly competitive and crowded market. “The workforce that is now being generated in universities—the sheer numbers of dentists graduating in Australia and also of those coming from overseas—is competitive. There are now between 400 and 600 graduates in dentistry each year in Australia, where there used to be around 250. You wouldn’t believe it but there are actually dentists who are unemployed and can’t find work. It really has changed.”

The change started well before Dr Benge started practising 30 years ago, when dental disease was commonplace and fillings were the bread and butter work of dentists. Fluoridation and good preventive dentistry have changed all of this—dentists have been doing such a good job for the last half-century, they’re now in danger of putting themselves out of a job unless they are prepared to move away from traditional dentistry and adapt to the new dental economy.

“The baby boomers—the people who had a filling every time they went to the dentist or had major work done—are getting older, and in the next few decades we’re going to be dealing with the generation who basically have nothing wrong with their teeth.

“We’re going to be in a situation where there’ll be preventive dentistry, there’ll still be orthodontics and periodontics, there’ll be wisdom teeth that need extracting, but a lot of the repair work that we’ve done over many years will start to drop back significantly. And if you’re not losing teeth you don’t need implants and dentures, so we’re not going to get the supply in those areas either.” The bloated workforce only exacerbates this decreasing supply of work.

Dr Benge believes that dentists need to be marketing and communicating with patients about what is possible. At the Malo Clinic, research has been conducted that indicates that 60 per cent of patients in the US, Canada and Australia don’t go to the dentist on a regular basis—this figure can be viewed as a huge untapped market for dentists.

“Those patients don’t get information about what is available,” Dr Benge explains. “So you’re not even reaching that part of the market. Marketing through television and radio, while expensive, is going to cut through to people who don’t have much information about the treatments that are available and whether they may need treatment.”

Dr Benge has had a head start in public relations because of his profile on Melbourne and Sydney radio. “I had been looking after a lot of the AFL and tennis players, and I was tracked down when I fixed a grand slam winner’s teeth on the day they won the title and my career in radio started from there,” he says. Dr Benge then got to know radio presenter Steve Price because of his long-running spot on 3AW and became the go-to dentist for his program too. He acknowledges that many dentists can’t afford to use mainstream broadcast media to make their presence known to the general public, but he is emphatic about the need to connect with people through other channels—to differentiate. “Certainly everybody can have a website and offer their services there. That is a great way of increasing your client base and your patient flow.”

A well-curated social media page is another effective way of promoting your business on a tight budget—though it is important to stay within AHPRA’s strict advertising requirements when you venture into this space. Dr Benge still conducts dental work on a number of professional sports ‘personalities’—people who tweet and have a media following. He has to ask that they refrain from providing testimonials on their websites and social media sites. “They can actually get me into problems [with unsolicited testimonials]—so we encourage them not to tweet, though it’s out of our control a little bit. We don’t push those channels very much at all.” Famous clients being too generous with their praise? It sounds like a nice problem to have.

See Dr Benge.s practice website at www.bondstreetdental.com.au

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