In today’s digital age, success in the dental industry practically requires an online presence. Whether it’s for patient outreach and engagement or online reviews, maintaining this digital visibility is crucial for attracting and retaining patients. This is especially true as patient demographics increasingly shift toward digital natives who expect a certain level of convenience.
Social media platforms have also emerged as powerful tools for dental practitioners to attract and connect with current and prospective patients. However, this digital transformation carries with it an important set of ethical considerations that practices must navigate carefully.
While engaging with patients online and on social media can benefit both parties, it also opens the door to a multitude of dilemmas involving everything from privacy concerns to the responsible dissemination of information.
To help you maintain the highest ethical standards, we’ll examine the five key pillars of ethics in dentistry and how they relate to your online presence.
Five Pillars of the Ethical Patient-Clinician Relationship
As healthcare providers, dentists have a duty to abide by certain ethical codes of conduct that ensure the best quality of services and care to the patient. While there is no universal set of standards, the American Dental Association (ADA) has developed a form of these obligations in the Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct.
This document highlights the five key ethical pillars to which all members of the ADA must agree:
Patient autonomy, also known as “self-governance,” is one of the fundamental principles by which dental providers must operate. This ethical pillar centers around a patient’s right to self-determination and confidentiality.
In other words, dentists must involve their patients in the treatment decisions while safeguarding their private medical information. That means ensuring the patient understands their diagnosis and treatment options before they provide informed consent or refuse treatment.
Nonmaleficence refers to the broad professional duty of preventing harm to the patient. For instance, dentists need to keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date and refer to specialists whenever the treatment exceeds their abilities.
But it also means avoiding practicing with impaired judgment, whether that’s from inappropriate substance use or engaging in a romantic doctor-patient relationship.
Nonmaleficence also covers patient abandonment. Once treatment is initiated, dentists should provide adequate notice and opportunity for the patient to find another dentist’s services before discontinuing it.
The inverse of nonmaleficence is beneficence, or the “do good” principle. For dental professionals, this entails promoting and acting in the best interests of the patient’s welfare. Like any other doctor, dentists are expected to serve the community and deliver competent care in a timely manner—all while considering each patient’s individual wants, needs and values.
Beyond providing care, dentists are also encouraged to dispense information to patients and the public that serves either individual or public oral health needs. Lastly, the beneficence principle mandates reporting cases of abuse or neglect.
Dentists must also treat all patients with fairness and deliver dental care without any prejudice. This core principle aims to improve the accessibility of dental care by preventing preferential patient selection or differential treatment on the basis of race, creed, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin or disability (except in cases where the practice is ill-equipped to provide adequate care).
Justice is also about ensuring other professionals are upholding high ethical standards. Dentists are responsible for reporting instances of gross negligence or faulty treatment to the appropriate agency.
Finally, veracity deals with the trustworthiness of dental professionals. Dentists are ethically bound to be truthful and honest in all aspects of their practice and patient communications. In other words, they cannot misrepresent their certifications, specializations, care outcomes, fees or services or make unverified claims about treatments.
Additionally, dentists should disclose any potential conflicts of interest, especially if they take part in product endorsements.
The Era of Influencers
One particularly controversial area of online dental marketing is the use of social media influencers. These internet micro-celebrities amass large, niche followings and can leverage this “influence” to persuade their followers to take certain actions.
In the context of dentistry, this can pose serious ethical dilemmas. For instance, if a dental practice were to pay an influencer (in cash or services) for an online review, this could be seen as dishonest and a conflict of interest. Similarly, using patient photos online without their consent can violate their autonomy and right to privacy.
Balancing these ethical principles with the increasing pressure to maintain an online presence can be difficult. Fortunately, we have a few tips to help.
Creating an Ethical Online Presence for Patient Engagement
To build an engaging online presence that maintains high ethical standards, dental practitioners should ensure they follow these best practices:
Maintain Professional Boundaries
Dentists and staff need to establish and uphold boundaries in all online communications to ensure a clear separation of personal and professional life. For example, they should avoid texting a patient outside of business hours and using slang or emojis. Moreover, blurring the boundaries of the dentist-patient relationship can cause conflicts in privacy and confidentiality.
Ensure Patient Privacy and Consent
Patient privacy and consent are paramount in online engagement. Before engaging with patients online, dentists must first gain their consent. They should also protect their personal information by using secure online platforms, encrypting sensitive data and regularly reviewing policies and security systems to ensure compliance.
Avoid or Disclose Conflicts of Interest
Dentists need to be transparent, which means addressing any potential conflicts of interest immediately and with 100% honesty. Whether it’s an educational presentation for the scientific community or a simple patient communication, it’s essential to disclose any financial affiliations that could influence treatment recommendations or endorsements.
Verify the Accuracy of Information You Share
Finally, dentists should ensure that all the information they share online and with patients is accurate and up to date. Before promoting content around oral health, it’s crucial to fact-check and review the materials for the proper citation of sources. Not only does this empower patients with accurate information for their oral health journey, but it also adds to the credibility of your practice.
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