In most instances, dental treatment is similar for patients of either gender. Important distinctions do exist, however—and practices keen to attract more female patients might want to take note, writes Merran White
According to ‘Women and Oral Health’, a 2016 issues paper from Women’s Health Victoria (WHV), “Women and men have different oral-health risk factors, conditions and ways of using health care.”
The paper found that:
- Women have higher rates of decayed, filled or missing teeth and are more likely to have no natural teeth.
- Women may be at increased risk of gum disease due to hormonal changes associated with pregnancy, puberty, menstruation and menopause.
- During pregnancy in particular, women can experience increased risk of gum disease and tooth decay due to increases in progesterone and oestrogen.
- Eating disorders are more common among women than men, and can lead to tooth erosion, tooth decay and gum disease.
- Women are more likely than men to experience family violence leading to injuries to the head, face and neck that impact on dental/oral health. Financial abuse may also result in dental neglect.
- More than a third of women defer dental visits because of cost considerations, while for rurally-based, elderly and disabled women, accessibility can be a challenge.
Moreover, gender norms and stereotypes emphasising physical perfection may drive body image concerns in some women that negatively impact oral-dental health—from enamel-eroding eating disorders, to feeling a need to alter their looks through cosmetic dental practices like bleaching, straightening and veneers.
Given these distinctions, there may well be a business case for dental practices marketing themselves specifically to women.
The question is, how best to do so, ethically and effectively?
Women respond to health information
Women usually need little prompting to seek dental care, says Melbourne-based dentist Dr Ruth Burns. “Once they understand the benefits of maintaining their teeth and gums, they’re typically more vigilant and proactive than men.”
And dentists “can certainly play a role in improving women’s understanding of oral-health issues that affect them, and in promoting good oral-health practice”, stresses WHV’s Renata Anderson, citing health-promotion messages that inform female patients about the importance of getting dental check-ups at certain life stages, “such as during pregnancy and around menopause”.
Dental practices keen to get women’s business could work with GPs to ensure they inform female patients about dental/oral health issues and make appropriate referrals, Anderson suggests, “especially women at greater risk of poor oral health, such as pregnant women.
“It’s important, however, to approach these issues sensitively and avoid stigmatising women who may be experiencing particular health issues or conditions, such as eating disorders,” cautions Anderson.
Promote women-specific services
“There’s definitely a need to market certain dental services to women,” asserts Dr Sally Miller, founder of Melbourne-based all-female practice Women in Dentistry.
During major hormonal transitions, for instance, women may have particular oral and dental issues. “Progesterone and oestrogen fluctuate throughout women’s lives, especially during pregnancy and menopause, exposing women to tooth decay, gum disease and tooth loss,” notes Anderson. “Dental care should be an essential component of antenatal care.”
“Some women may be more comfortable visiting female dentists, while a woman with children might be more likely to attend a practice with childcare or parking onsite.”—Renata Anderson, Women’s Health Victoria
Post-menopausal women embarking on osteoporosis medication are also typically advised to undergo dental treatment beforehand, says Dr Nova Gibson, an oral maxillofacial surgeon, “to avoid possible complications arising from anti-absorbative-agent drugs”.
Practices wanting to promote dental services to pregnant women might consider contacting local GPs, gynaecologists, and antenatal care centres for referrals. Reach out to osteoporotic patients through local doctors’ surgeries and bone-density clinics, suggests Dr Burns.
“Use your website and social media to market your practice as specialising in women’s dental and oral health,” Dr Miller advises. “Women definitely respond to that.”
Create a female-friendly practice
Catering to women’s needs is “about more than technical expertise”, Anderson notes. “For example, some women may be more comfortable visiting female dentists, while a woman with children might be more likely to attend a practice with childcare or parking onsite.”
The Women in Dentistry practice has a fresh, friendly vibe, the product of its female staff’s penchant for welcoming spaces.
“Women notice more whether a place is clean and nice,” Dr Miller says—adding there’s a streamlined online appointments system that’s a hit with time-poor working women.
Dr Burns’ cheerful, carpeted waiting room has recent-issue magazines and a children’s play area; her surgery walls are lined with grateful kids’ drawings.
Not sure where to begin?
“A good way to find out how your practice can be more ‘female-friendly’ is to ask your patients,” Anderson advises. “Run a survey at the practice or on social media, or use a suggestion box.”
Hire more women
Around 20 years ago, Dr Miller renamed her business Women in Dentistry.
“Over time, it had become an all-female practice; I [chose] the name because of that,” she recalls. Even though the CBD-based practice has a 60 per cent male clientele, “the rebranding did attract more women patients”.
It’s little surprise that when Miller sold the practice to Utopia Dental in mid-2015, the new owners retained the name. Employing women practitioners has become a marketing advantage.
“Use your website and social media to market your practice as specialising in women’s dental and oral health.”—Dr Sally Miller, founder, Women in Dentistry
While she’s worked with many skilled, empathic male dentists, “there are areas people feel female practitioners appreciate more”, Dr Miller says. “Women gravitate to female dentists for issues around pregnancy and menopause, and when they’re in vulnerable personal or medical positions—such as during cancer treatment.”
Females also have smaller, more sensitive hands, which may seem a trivial matter—until those hands are probing your molars.
Cater to families
Dr Burns, with a long-established practice in upper-middle-class Melbourne suburb Hawthorn, has little need to promote her services. Google her name and a string of customer reviews pops up, praising Burns’ gentle, caring approach, reasonable rates and rapport.
Dr Burns ‘marketing’ is about affordable, patient-centred treatment geared to growing families: “If you can help pregnant women with good dental care and advice,” she says, “they’ll then bring the whole family along.” Nowadays, she has patients from successive generations.
It’s “far more competitive for recent graduates”, Dr Burns admits, suggesting that younger dentists keen to promote their services to women volunteer to talk with kids at local kindergartens and schools in order to gain access to those all-important mums at the right stage of life.
Then, if you’re good at your job, you’ll have loyal patients—and their kids, and even grandkids—for a lifetime.
Consider (responsible) cosmetic dentistry
As women are more likely to seek cosmetic dentistry than men, this is one way practices can expand their female customer base—and profits. “It’s been a big money-spinner for a lot of practices in recent years,” says Dr Miller.
However, there’s a downside, cautions Dr Gibson. “Getting rid of serious dental problems such as decay should be high-priority, but women will often spend their money on veneers or braces instead. Then they have no money left to spend on fillings, root canals, work they really need.”
Anderson notes that women may be more likely to seek cosmetic dentistry because of social scripts that send a message to women that their value is based on what they look like.
Dr Gibson’s win-win solution?
“I’ll say to those women, ‘Let’s start this cosmetic procedure but let’s also treat these holes; it’ll look ugly if you end up with missing teeth.’ They tend to respond to that.”
Make it affordable
When women neglect their dental health, affordability’s often the problem.
“We know that [in Australia], more than a third of women report avoiding or delaying dental care due to cost,” says Anderson. “[Hence] the biggest game changer would be for the government to subsidise dental care through Medicare.
“At the very least, pregnant women should be entitled to free or low-fee dental care.”
Meanwhile, offering payment plans to disadvantaged women needing essential, urgent care, and systems enabling patients to claim on-the-spot healthcare-fund rebates can help ease the financial burden.
“There are also several free or low-cost services for people on low incomes or from disadvantaged groups that many people don’t know about,” Anderson notes. “These should be promoted more effectively.”
Do your utmost to get good word of mouth: women talk!
Whether it’s direct or happens via online reviews or Facebook likes, positive word of mouth is a dentist’s number one promotional aid, especially with prospective female patients. “Women talk!” reminds Dr Miller. “And social media helps.”
Often, developing loyalty and trust starts in the chair. “The dentists in our practice are exceptional communicators,” she says, “which is partly what gets women coming back.”
Key to a caring ‘chairside’ manner is taking the time to inform patients about how best to look after their teeth, says Dr Burns, “so they’ll still have them if they live to be 100”.
As women typically live longer than men—especially if they make regular dental visits—that’s not such a far-fetched scenario. Thus, building a practice that caters to women’s needs is a long-term win-win, for patients and your practice.
Women requiring sensitive care: family violence and eating disorders
There is a huge opportunity for dental professionals to screen for and identify domestic violence, and to provide information to women about where they can seek assistance. This is sometimes called ‘early intervention’. The dentist may be the first person who has noticed the woman’s injuries, or the first person the woman tells about her experience, so it’s really important that dental professionals listen and respond with sensitivity and empathy, and know what specialist services are available to support the woman. Although we are not aware of any Australian resources on responding to domestic violence that are specifically designed for dentists, guidance available for GPs can also be used by dentists, and the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria keeps an up-to-date list of services across the country.