Dental Dean Update — Oral health influencers

Dental Dean Update — Oral health influencers

Perhaps the time has come for our Faculty to engage with the social media influencer model of information for the future? We all seem to be surrounded by influencers, particularly on social media. When I was young, there was no such job title as 'influencer' or 'YouTuber'. In fact, social media and the Internet had not been invented.

My first computer experiences were in the early 1980s, with some very elementary computing technology, which is now fossilised and fit for a museum. Times have changed, and I for one am grateful that we have so much technology in our personal and work lives.  

Traditional routes of providing oral health care advice are no longer the only means of providing our patients populations with information. Social media influencers are now key people in healthcare as they shape opinions, lifestyle choices and for some within the population, are seen to be paragons of virtue. No longer can we, members of the dental team, scoff at items of information posted on webpages, blogs, YouTube, social media itself and someone. Influencers are no longer confined to the beauty and fashion industry, or indeed just preaching to children. I have noticed recently that the power of these online personalities has grown and that the oral healthcare industry has identified this as a new opportunity. The question I am posing in this blog is: are we as a Faculty missing an opportunity? Influencers today are no longer restricting themselves to or promoting oral hygiene products and practices. The healthcare industry knows that ultimately influencing is a great way to sell products and services by having endorsements from influencers with global reach. 

Within our own College we have had many influencers over the years, and it would be foolish not to recognise the fact that dentistry as we know it today was born within our College. In the 1770's James Rae, who was a surgeon, offered the first organised lectures on dentistry in the UK with specific attention to 'diseases of the body depending on those of the teeth, thro' all the stages of life … such particularly as affect the head, eye, glands, and neighbouring parts'. He was of course followed by other RCSEd Fellows, including James Syme and Robert Liston who were maxillofacial pioneers, and in 1825, Robert Naysmith worked with Liston and undertook splinting of mobile mandibular fragments following resection of a large neoplasm. Brodie Imlach, one of the only two dentists to become RCSEd President, worked closely with James Young Simpson and performed the first general anaesthetic extraction in 1847, only a few days after Simpson had used this in an obstetric case. 

So what of our influencers of today? The digital age has enabled the relatable and capable communicators to make oral health information interesting and appealing to everyone. Instagram, YouTube and TikTok have emerged with a whole variety of products, but also dental care routines, and indeed dentists showing off what they can deliver. One area that concerns me is 'Turkey teeth' and Faculty and wider College have taken the decision not to engage publicly in commenting on ‘Turkey teeth, but rather to take the moral high ground of education, persuasion and advocacy in relation to provision of high quality clinical care. As dental health professionals we all understand the need for prevention as well as cure, and in the background the concern in relation to lifestyle aspects such as the relationship of alcohol and tobacco to the rise of head and neck cancers. The Faculty has been a contributor to the UK government consultation on 'creating a smoke-free generation tackling youth vaping' and our influence has been heard with the legislative changes that are to be taken forward. We continue to influence, but perhaps in a more traditional manner. 

It would be naïve of us to ignore social influencers, as they have ability to democratise information and provide this in easily digestible portions. This presents the traditional healthcare industry with a challenge: how can we provide information that is friendly and relatable and at the same time allow an open exchange of information without being judgemental? There is a dark side to all progress, and we know that not all influencers are above board and some share exaggerated claims, market pointless gadgets, misinformation or fail to disclose sponsorships and conflicts of interest, and at the same time dental regulators need to consider their role in whether this breeches codes of conduct. Influencing should be undertaken with integrity, reliability and patient protection at the heart. Our College has a rich history of influencing oral and dental health over many generations. As the digital landscape changes, the role of the social media influencer will inevitably grow and therefore I feel that the time has come for our Faculty to carefully consider whether or not we wish to engage in the digital healthcare information revolution going on around us. 

As ever, I would welcome your views on this and any other subject, so please do not hesitate to get in touch. 

 Grant McIntyre, Dental Dean

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