Orthodonists aren’t smiling about teeth-straightening startups
There’s more to treating a smile than just moving visible portions of the teeth
IT’S EASIER than ever to get straighter teeth. Orthodontists think that’s a big problem. Where metal braces installed in a doctor’s office were once the only way to correct misaligned teeth, a new method that uses removable clear aligners can eliminate a visit to an orthodontist and save patients thousands of dollars. That’s what led Deniece Hudson, who always dreamed of having straighter teeth, to a startup called SmileDirectClub. Hudson, a 24-year-old Georgia Southern University graduate, visited one of the company’s retail outlets in an Atlanta strip mall in February to have her teeth scanned. That experience would turn out to be her only in-person interaction with a medical professional during a nine-month journey through the growing field of tele-orthodontics. From the scans, SmileDirectClub used 3D printers to create 24 trays of transparent plastic braces, which were delivered by mail with instructions on when to switch trays. Dentists monitored her progress by looking at selfies she sent over the internet. The only thing she ever learned about the physicians treating her was their last names. “I trusted the company enough to not actually give me someone who didn’t know what they were doing,” Hudson said. The programme cost US$2,170, compared with the US$5,000 to US$8,000 for a traditional orthodontist using the industry-leading Invisalign system created by Align Technology Inc. With one month to go in her programme, Hudson says she’s satisfied with the results. “I used to be so nervous, but now I’m always smiling,” she said. Hudson may be grinning, but a growing number of orthodontists aren’t. Instead, they’re warning consumers about the possible dangers of undergoing a complex medical procedure without the in-person supervision of a dental professional. The main orthodonists’ trade association has filed complaints against SmileDirectClub with 36 state dental boards and attorneys general, alleging regulatory and statutory violations. “I don’t think the diagnosis can happen with three clicks,” said Hera Kim-Berman, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s department of orthodontics and paediatric dentistry and the program director of orthodontic graduate training. “These companies treat them as consumers, as clients, and that’s really the major difference.” About 300 million people worldwide with teeth misalignment could benefit from straightening yet are unlikely to seek treatment through a traditional doctor’s office, according to a February securities filing by Align. The global orthodontics market, which includes traditional braces, is projected to increase to US$2.6 billion by 2023, from US$1.5 billion in 2016, according to Allied Market Research. SmileDirectClub, which is closely held, is the most prominent of a growing batch of startups seeking to capture that market. Since launching in 2014, the company says it has treated more than 250,000 patients with custom-made aligners. It declined to disclose sales figures. Two key factors are driving growth of the tele-orthodontics business. More sophisticated 3D printing now allows companies to use digital scanning to create custom-made clear plastic aligners and retainers, which are replacing the uncomfortable metal braces used by orthodontists for decades. And last October, Invisalign lost its exclusivity on 40 patents that kept it as the leading clear-aligner brand, opening the door for newcomers like SmileDirectClub. “There’s more to treating a smile than just moving visible portions of the teeth” “A lot of our customers at one point had braces, they forgot to wear their retainers, their teeth shifted a little bit,” said SmileDirectClub co-founder Alex Fenkell. “And before SmileDirectClub, they were looking at US$5,000 to address something that they’ve already invested in; it just wasn’t making sense to them.” – Washington Post.