Dumbing down the Specialty of Orthodontics; How profit-based companies are using Facebook and Google to mislead patients and reduce the quality of modern Orthodontics.
Currently on “the Hill” the founder and head of Facebook is giving testimony on false news and propaganda that his platform has allowed to insinuate are truths. By combing through the tens of millions of Facebook accounts, algorithms (data processing) and Artificial Intelligent produced by Facebook mined public accounts privately to screen and direct the public to specific companies (or propaganda) based on payment from advertises and not based on facts or truth and without ethical standards or oversight. The unsuspecting public just followed the ads and ended up being directed to companies who paid Facebook for customers and were allowed to say and claim anything while directing patients to their own biased doctors. This would have been unethical and illegal in traditional advertising but social media escapes all scrutiny (until recently due to election advertising and bots).
I admit I do have a business Facebook page though I am not very keen in social media and there are long times when it goes untouched. But I was truly horrified to hear that a full 60% of Americans get their news from Facebook. For years now I have been getting solicitors offering to advertise with Facebook and social media; to use formulas and trade secrets to target my ads and focus prospective patients to my doors. I even remember when I was setting up my latest website that the hosting company was having ads for Invisalign (pointing patients to my very competitors!) run alongside my site in exchange for some animation aps that I added.
“… 60% of Americans get their news from Facebook”
I guess it is just a shock that people would take ads on Facebook as absolute fact but I am learning that I just see things different then the public in total. This is clearly a problem in many fields and subjects/sectors or young Mr. Zuckerberg would not be worth some 33 Billion dollars (all from advertisers paying Facebook to spread their “word”) based on a “free” website platform he provides.
A Quick History of Previous Public Knowledge
A little over 20 years ago the practice of Orthodontics was a very specialized and advanced field of dentistry having developed from 100 years of research and trials. Certification required two to three years of advanced post-doctorate training at an accredited Dental School where Orthodontists studied all of the past research and history as they were tutored by highly experienced, expert Orthodontists treating upwards of a 100 patients under the guidance of their mentors. Orthodontists learned that function of the dentition is paramount for the health of the joint, future wear of teeth and stability of alignment.
In fact, Orthodontists learned that function and occlusion of teeth were more important than esthetics (we were of course taught to create beautiful smiles along with the function). Lining up teeth for a pretty smile is the simple part, it is the first step with braces and usually takes only 6 to 12mo; it is the movement of the roots and the coordination and fitting all of the teeth within the individual arches (in a moving jaw) that introduced the real difficulties with tooth movement.
Understanding the inflammatory process as well as bone physiology and growth of the face and jaw also required much more education than typical dental school could provide. An understanding of Physics and differential forces was required to control not just the movements but also maintain the anchorage on other teeth.
“the public used to be educated directly by the Specialists and their professional organizations under strict ethical and moral standards”
In short, Orthodontists were highly trained and the public used to be educated directly by the Specialists and their professional organizations under strict ethical and moral standards. There were no companies allowed to advertise directly to the public, this would have been considered unethical and biased (which it still is). Likewise, General dentists acknowledged that although they were experts in restoration of teeth and replacement of teeth, they were nowhere near the competency of a specialist and they referred their patients to colleagues they knew could do a better job (in other words the needs of the patient outweighed the potential for profit).
So what has changed in the last 20 years?
About 20 years ago, a new product was being developed from the digital revolution; not from an Orthodontist or dentist, but from a tech person, a business entrepreneur. They had no education or license to practice dentistry and were not bound by any ethical standards or licensing but they realized that they could use a laser to scan models of teeth and digitize a person’s dentition. They formed a company and modified a method used by Orthodontists to correct mild rotations and relapse using a series of stone casts. Instead of taking impressions and pouring stone models, they would capture a digital rendition of teeth which they could move incrementally on a computer. For each incremental digital movement, they would produce a cast and then a clear plastic “aligner” tray that would incrementally move teeth to the positon altered in each cast. This product was pioneered by Align Technologies and became known as Invisalign though now there are more than half a dozen different companies that provide the same clear trays. It was an expensive process for minimal results but at least it avoided a new impression after each incremental movement and ultimately avoided braces in mild cases.
Initially only marketed to Specialists for correction of mild rotations (for which they work well), it didn’t take long before these companies started marketing to the larger pool of doctors (General Dentists) who had little to no Orthodontic training mainly due to floundering from high overhead and inferior product. General dentists in competitive markets that did not have enough restorative work to keep them busy jumped on the new aligners and it wasn’t long before they were pushing treatment previously considered inferior. Once the public accepted the idea of straight-ish front teeth over a comprehensive functional correction, dentists (and some specialists) were more than happy to offer this “simple” solution that did not require expert education/certification or fixed braces.
The next 10 years …
Over the next 10 years, Align Technologies evolved and managed a campaign to dumb down Orthodontics. Being more of a tech business than a medical company, Align Technologies likely realized they did not want to have to comply to FDA testing and standards or regulations. They instead turned to social media to get their product directly to patients. With no regulation or oversight, Facebook was more than happy to push traffic to this new advertiser; same with Google.
General dentists (and even un-suspecting Orthodontists) then played right into their hands by selling the aligners to more patients which Align Technology rewarded with sending even moe patients. Soon they were openly (but privately) claiming that they could provide equivalent treatment to traditional braces. Responsible Orthodontists would offer InvisAlign to limited cases they knew could be treated and to adults who would not use braces but may accept clear aligners (even if the results were not as good as braces).
Many of us would use this opportunity to educate patients and hopefully get them to go for the full correction with braces (we are after all doctors and we should be trying to provide what is best). But as specialists, good Orthodontists realized that partial movement is sometimes worse than leaving the original crowding so some patients were refused aligner treatment; these patients soon learned that many general dentists were not so selective and were more willing to provide a lesser correction (many out of ignorance, many others simply for profit) especially those recommended by Align technologies via Facebook and Google. As more Orthodontists started offering aligners on a limited basis, the dentists would point to them and imply they could do the same for less (insinuating all cases and all doctors are the same). These same dentists stopped referring even difficult cases to Orthodontists. The joke with most Orthodontists is hearing a general dentist today tell people “I only treat limited cases” when we know not a single patient has been referred out since offering clear aligners.
“As specialists, many of us realized that partial movement is sometimes worse than the original crowding so we refused to treat; these patients soon learned that many general dentists were not so selective”
After several more years of this, Orthodontists began seeing their referral sources drying up; they were no longer able to educate these patients because companies were coming between the patients and the doctors; bombardment and targeting of ads on Facebook, Google, TV and other social media was shifting patients that just wanted straight teeth and assumed braces to “want” Invisalign or other aligners with false expectations. Many were patients that were never told aligners were inferior and unable to perform the same as traditional braces (see my previous posts on Does Invisalign work as advertised?) and many unethical dentists quietly acted like specialists to sell the product. Many patients were actually treatment planned into Invisalign and other companies without any guidance from independent dentists or Orthodontists.
Advertisers became emboldened realizing there was no regulation (as did some general dentists) and they began openly claiming Invisalign and other aligners were just “Invisible Braces” and would provide the same correction as traditional braces. These aligner companies started creating levels of “expertise” in aligners and began pushing comparisons to the “old” and “outdated” traditional braces even to the point of drawing lawsuits from the American Association of Orthodontists. Facebook is a prime example of a platform pushing misinformation. Of course doctors already providing aligners could not speak up or they would look unethical.
Worse than that, out of fear of losing their patients altogether, many Orthodontists have panicked and just accepted offering aligners; it was the old “can’t beat ‘em so join them” mentality. This is visible in many Orthodontists’ advertising today as they now compete with relatively untrained general dentists on social media sites for aligner patients. Of course human nature then demands that these Orthodontists providing aligners must ardently defend and justify the aligners or they would face a backlash from their own aligner patients. Actually quite brilliant use of Facebook and Google in an age with no regulation and directed onto a public that clearly is swayed by social media.
Does it matter that Orthodontics is seen as simple?
So why is this important? Can we not just move forward into the 21st Century of dentistry with aligners for all and a beautiful-ish smile with no thought of function? Do we even need a specialty anymore? Who cares about function? Kids certainly won’t, they just want straight front teeth and isn’t it all about what teenagers want anyway? And besides, braces are unsightly so why not give the patient what they want?
As simplistic and benign as this may sound, it is creating a real problem in modern dentistry. Companies have now been allowed to advertise and throw propaganda at the public with no real oversight or moderation. And they are thriving thanks to Facebook and Google; squashing real research and drowning out 100 years of education and truth with half-truths/purposeful omission and sometimes just plain lies. Claims are made and supported with “company sponsored research” even after being disproved by real research; articles that criticize or challenge these companies in any way are pushed to page 25 on google through the billions of dollars of advertising from Invisalign and any dentist that offers such. And if even a mention of dentistry, tooth alignment, smiles or braces crosses Facebook, Invisalign ads pop up immediately to claim they are the only answer and, by the way, here is where you can get it.
So what are Risks of poor treatment?
When teeth are moved (no matter the appliance), there are risks of pushing teeth out of the bone causing recession or loss of bone and early loss of teeth. These effects are not immediate however and may not show for many years, being later wrongly attributed to genetics or some other unknown when in fact it can be from poorly placed teeth.
|Patient K.B. previously treated with Invisalign, fontal view.|
|Patient K.B. from the side showing protrusion of font teeth, pushed out by the aligners to correct rotations. This patient still has a fixed lower retainer revealing that this is how the dentist left this patient as "completed".|
|Patient K.B. being re-treated with traditional braces to re-align teeth while pulling front teeth back/upright over the bone to prevent recession; permanent teeth were removed to allow full correction.|
Of course compliance is a great concern as we see Invisalign advertised to kids even 12 to 13 years old (before 2nd some teeth are even fully erupted). Nothing works if it is not kept in the mouth. Brace are absolute; they work 24h and they show where any shifts in the bite occur; removing trays in and out can leave a memory of a poor bite throughout treatment which then is never corrected. Also, teeth that do not move (and aligns simply cannot move all teeth), may be blamed on a lack of compliance putting the blame on the consumers when it is really the product or a combination of product and patient. Roots can be difficult to shift though the bone making space closure more of a “tipping closed” with aligners instead of the whole root moving. Theoretically they could move roots more but it would take four times as long and 100 more trays! The most recent fake ads I have seen suggest Invisalign treatment leads to less plaque and better oral hygiene. Studies now refute this false claim as well.
Compliance with removable aligners is not absolute; many cases simply do not finish and the patients simply stop pursuing the correction.
What does the Research on Clear Aligners REALLY show?
“Our results suggested that about 1.5 mm of overbite improvement can be expected when the Invisalign appliance is used in deepbite patients. A previous systematic review on the stability of deepbite correction reported an average of 3 mm overbite correction with fixed appliances [50% more effective with traditional braces]”
Khosravi, R. Management of overbite with the Invisalign appliances AJO-DO April 2017
Invisalign [treatment results] only 41% mean accuracy of tooth movement with a range from 18% to 47.1% (j.ajodo.2007.05.018;www.ajodo.org)
Mean percentage of single tooth movement goal of only 57% (j.ajodo.2013.10.022).
When results from Invisalign were compared to traditional braces using American Board of Orthodontic standards, the Passing rate of cases treated with Invisalign were 27% lower (j.ajodo.2005.06.002).
Another more complete study (j.ajodo.2004.07.016) actually concluded that there was a “minimal improvement in occlusal score based on Board standards from 47 to 36.4 [0 being ideal] and there was a negative change (2.5x worse AFTER treatment) in posterior occlusion contacts with Invisalign.”
This last investigator summarized Invisalign treatment by stating “According to the OGS [Objective Grading System used for the American Board of Orthodontics], Invisalign did not treat malocclusions as well as braces … Invisalign was especially deficient in its ability to correct large anteroposterior discrepancies [overjet] and occlusal contacts.”
Another article published April of 2017 in the AJO-DO (Journal of the American Association of Orthodontics) was published that confirmed previous findings (j.ajodo.2016.09.022) showing Inivisalign only 50% effective as braces in opening a deepbite and considering there is already an average relapse of @50%, the net change from Invisalign after treatment is zero.
So what’s next from these companies?
The next logical step is for these aligner companies, which have been storing information from years of cases treated by dentists and Orthodontists, to cut the dentists themselves out. I am tempted to argue these doctors deserve as much but it is the public who will be left with a perception that Orthodontics is like bleaching your teeth or getting a manicure; as if you can do the same as a Specialty trained, Board Certified Orthodontist directly from a commercial on tv, a kiosk in the Mall or a mail order box of supplies.
Facebook has already essentially convinced the public through Social Media and advertising on TV that only the front teeth matter; that Orthodontics is just about straightening front teeth with no need to mention function. They have used the general dentists to trick Orthodontists to offer and accept aligners despite the many shortcomings and high overhead; they have worked quietly to equate Inivisalign with “Invisible braces” and create a pseudo-specialty of providers that they refer directly. Now that these advertisers have the patients directed to them through Facebook and Google searches, they are offering aligners with no dental supervision or an “off-sight dentist” to review or oversee the case which of course is nonsense as most of these products are made out of the Country in Mexico, China or Cosa Rica.
So is this the future, is Orthodontics dead? Will we see the end of traditional braces?
It is a proven fact that traditional braces are far superior to aligners in many aspects of Orthodontics (see research below). Of course you would never know this since billions of dollars in advertising are spent to bury actual scientific studies comparing Aligners to braces on every search engine and spent to direct anyone thinking about braces directly to aligner companies such as Invisalign or Smile Club (now partially owned by Invisalign); just try and google information about Invisalign and all you will find are ads for providers and efforts to “dispel myths” claiming Invisalign is just as good if not superior to traditional braces (information provided over and over by aligner companies, the largest being Align Technologies). And who do you ask if your dentist provides Invisalign? Will they be objective and honest; will they know the research or even tell you they aren’t specialists? Will they claim it is equal to braces? Will they rely on fake news and fake information on Facebook? Will they go to page 25 on Google?
The future of Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics is really in the hands of the public. If the public chooses to ignore function, ignore the way teeth hit and ignore the damage from poorly positioned teeth such as openbites or TMD Jaw Pain, then we may see the end of the specialty as it has been known.
From the Orthodontists’ view, why go three more years into debt after four years in dental school and four years of college just to work through a very difficult post-doctoral program when you will just to go out and scan teeth for mail-order aligner trays? Can we make the public want what’s best? Can we counter a billion dollars a year in advertising against us? Even in our own Journal thee was a letter to the editor from an Orthodontist chastising his colleagues for not giving in to what patients want, for resisting the inevitable and suggesting we are snobs for demanding a higher standard than what the public wants.
He stated that we should not do things that hurt our profession financially and that it is far better to use aligners than lose the business to dentists. I almost think it was a plant from an aligner company as the logical next step is to bypass doctors altogether.
Companies know that from the patients’ standpoint, there is no reason to pay a doctor when they are just going to scan the teeth and send it away to Costa Rica or Mexico; why not just go to a kiosk in the mall and pay the company directly for the trays (yes this is already a thing)? And Facebook is their vehicle to spread this propaganda.
Ultimately Orthodontists have done a poor job protecting the public from predatory advertisers representing these unregulated companies and even the American Dental Association has turned a blind eye so that general dentists do not lose a stream of revenue (after all, the ADA is made up of those dentists who don’t want to bite the hands that are feeding them). Orthodontists have been scared to speak out against their general dentists colleagues out of risking losing referrers; they instead just joined them in providing aligners which has now lent a false credibility to the companies’ advertisements and propaganda in the public’s eyes and lowered the standards of those specialists. Facebook and advertisers in Google are winning and it has led to a predictable fall in standards.
Food for thought …
So will we see the death of true Orthodontics? Will Orthodontists have to give up the cases that are simple and only treat the most severe or those that failed from aligners (expect $10k/case for real braces in the future if this is the case). Will dentists even seek to become specialized if mail-order aligners is what the public demands? Would a dentist put a crown in without proper function? These are serious questions as we witness for the probably the first time ever, a once respected profession turn into cheap salespeople and a respective branch of dentistry actually go backward after so many years of advancements.
If you have questions or comments concerning this or any orthodontic question, please feel free to make a complimentary new-patient appointment at either my Steiner Ranch location or my North-central Austin location on West 35th street and MoPac.
Dr. James R. Waters is a 1996 graduate from UTHSC Dental School in San Antonio, 1997 graduate of Advanced Dentistry from the UNMC in Nebraska and the 2001 Valedictorian graduate from the prestigious Saint Louis University Orthodontic Program receiving the J.P. Marshall award for clinical excellence in 2001. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Science, Doctorate in Dental Surgery, a post-doctorate certificate in Advanced Dentistry, post-doctorate Degree in Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics and a Master of Science Degree in Orthodontics and is a Diplomate of the American Board of Orthodontics. Dr. Waters and his wife of 22 years live in Austin, TX with their 4 children where he has a thriving, multi-faceted Specialist practice with locations in Steiner Ranch and North-Central Austin. You can learn more about Dr. Waters at BracesAustin.com.