In recent years, SmileDirectClub gained traction as a DIY solution for straightening smiles and was promoted heavily on social media. The allure of a faster and more affordable alternative to traditional orthodontics was evident. However, the aftermath of SmileDirectClub's September bankruptcy prompts a closer look at the pitfalls of seeking quick and cost-effective DIY dentistry.

Many of these patients were left hanging, with treatment plans still open, at the time the company closed its doors. As dental providers, the best thing we can do for them is understand why they turned to DIY dentistry in the first place. Then, we can show them the better, safer and more long-lasting option of traditional orthodontic treatment.

SmileDirectClub gained traction as a DIY solution for straightening smiles
SmileDirectClub gained traction as a DIY solution for straightening smiles.

Why SmileDirectClub Succeeded – and Then Failed

Every orthodontist has run into common barriers to treatment plan acceptance as the patient questions your recommendations. They want their teeth straightened quickly, but they don’t want any obtrusive-looking mouth gear. They want treatment to be convenient and thorough, but also low cost.

SmileDirectClub seemingly delivered on those demands. Since it started in 2014, the company served over two million customers by providing invisible aligners they could use at home. The company's glossy website previously touted the benefits of DIY dental treatment with mail-order aligners and regular 60-day check-ins.

Well, it used to. Now the page is a FAQ, letting these former customers know that the program has abruptly ended, and they should follow up with their own dentist for continued treatment.

So what led to the company’s end? Some lawsuits indicate SmileDirectClub overpromised and underdelivered to their customers, while using NDAs to cover up less successful cases. Meanwhile, dentists warned for years that these invisible aligners were more likely to cause loose teeth and receding gums than the beautiful smile that patients hoped for. The company faced a spate of legal troubles from day one and never seemed to entirely recover. And unlike a traditional dentist, when they abruptly closed their doors, they didn’t ensure any continuity of care.

Now, thousands of patients will be looking to transfer that care, when the process won’t be as seamless as they think. Most likely, any orthodontist they encounter will have to first correct the damage these aligners did before they can even start with treatment. Dentists will face an uphill battle of talking down these expectations while getting the patient on the right treatment course.

The Risks of DIY Dentistry and the Rewards of Orthodontia

SmileDirectClub isn’t the only DIY dental option out there and it won’t be the last. Some may improve on the model, offering dentist-directed care or state-of-the-art aligners.  However, these options will never be able to replace the benefits of a customized treatment plan. Dentists will need to be able to communicate this to patients. Here are some tips on how to do it. 

  • Emphasize the importance of customized treatment plans: Dental structure is as unique to the patient as a fingerprint. While DIY dentistry options promise customized alignments based on the patient's smile, those aligners are created using half, or even less, of the information orthodontists typically use when creating traditional plans. No DIY program will ever be able to create the customized approach that a dental professional working directly on their smile plan can.

  • Educate patients on potential risks and complications: These DIY dentistry operations are quick to make big promises and tout thousands of positive reviews. However, like all online products, those reviews are the result of a carefully curated PR campaign. All companies engage in some form of online reputation management – they wouldn’t be able to stay in business otherwise. However, sometimes management crosses the line to intimidation that keeps truthful experiences from being shared. As a result, dental patients may not be familiar with the true risks.

  • Highlight the expertise of dentists: One significant issue with the invisible aligner approach is its tendency to treat orthodontia as if it were a one-size-fits-all solution. The reality is that clear aligners may not be appropriate for every case. However, DIY companies often promote these aligners as the universal solution. In contrast, dentists undergo years of training to develop their skills and determine the most suitable approach, whether it involves clear aligners or other orthodontic methods. Dentists consider various factors, to ensure a personalized and effective treatment plan. It’s vital to communicate this crucial distinction to patients who may be enticed by the convenience of DIY solutions.

  • Promote continuity of care: As we saw in SmileDirectClub's cases, patients are often left hanging when these companies abruptly close up shop. As an established dental professional, you can offer your patients continuity of care. Every time they come to your office, they see the same dentist who is familiar with their case and their needs. These patients get not only the expertise of a consistent healthcare provider but also the assurance of ongoing support throughout their treatment journey. This level of personalized care is a fundamental advantage of choosing a trusted and reliable dental professional over the uncertainties of DIY solutions.

  • Use chairside or email videos: One thing that draws patients to these DIY dentistry solutions is that they’re self-paced and easy to understand. Often, these companies have extensive video collections that show their products in use. Chairside or emailed videos can offer the same benefit to your patient while guaranteeing a level of expertise remote dentistry options can't. An option like Spears Patient Education Videos allows you to provide a wide range of resources to your patients, in languages they understand and appreciate.

  • Position traditional dentistry as a long-term solution: “Get a new smile in six months" is a common promise made by DIY dentistry providers, but at what cost? Moving teeth that quickly could lead to instability or bone resorption. While the appeal of a rapid transformation is understandable, the potential risks associated with accelerated orthodontic treatments should not be overlooked. Dentists, with their expertise and training, carefully consider the optimal pace for teeth movement to ensure stability and long-term oral health. While these patients may not achieve the rapid straightening they hoped for, prioritizing a measured approach ensures a smile that stands the test of time.
DIY dentistry leads to long-term problems for patients
DIY dentistry leads to long-term problems for patients.

The important thing to emphasize is that DIY dentistry leads to long-term problems for patients. In cases like SmileDirectClub’s bankruptcy, the parties responsible for those problems won’t even be around to deal with the consequences. Instead, patients will be left on the hook with partially done treatment that doesn’t meet their unique needs. As dental professionals, we will need to step in and support these patients by reiterating the true benefits of traditional dentistry and orthodontic treatment.