By Timothy Hyland
CVS Health Corporation is on a growth tear, swallowing Aetna Inc. in a $70 billion deal last November and reconfiguring 1,500 of its 9,800 drugstores into ‘health hubs;’ go-to treatment centers for people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes and asthma.
As part of its bid to remake itself into a one-stop provider of healthcare services – more than eight in ten Americans live within three miles of a CVS store – the company announced last month that it is taking a bold step into the world of cosmetic dentistry.
Not surprisingly, the move has raised alarm bells in the dental community – not only concerning the safety of planned new dental clinics, but also the inevitable competition to many dental practices, as well.
CVS, which in the most recent year earned $1.42 billion, plans to make SmileDirectClub services available in several hundred of its pharmacy locations. SmileDirectClub, a digitally native, direct-to-consumer teeth-straightening service, has made major inroads in its space by offering consumers an easy, "at-home" means of straightening crooked teeth, without having to visit an orthodontist.
Via the partnership with CVS, SmileDirectClub will dramatically expand its reach; interested consumers can simply visit a participating CVS to have their teeth scanned by a SmileDirectClub staffer. Those images are then forwarded to a dental professional, who is charged with creating a treatment plan. Finally, a removable aligner is mailed to the consumer for use.
The services are slated to be rolled out through the remainder of 2019 to hundreds of CVS stores. Then later this year, SmileDirectClub services via CVS will be added as an in-network healthcare option for Aetna Dental members. Eventually, CVS said, it plans to expand to thousands of locations over the next several years.
Millions of Customers
In a statement announcing the new initiative, CVS Pharmacy President Kevin Hourican said that his company and SmileDirectClub are "aligned in the mission to put the customer at the center of their care by providing easier access to more affordable, more convenient health solutions with proven outcomes. SmileShops at CVS Pharmacy support our dedication to enhancing the customer experience with innovative and convenient health and beauty solutions."
Added Alex Fenkell, co-founder of SmileDirectClub: "Our collaboration opens the door for millions of CVS Pharmacy customers to be one step closer to getting a smile that they love, and can afford."
Beyond the convenience of the new service, the CVS-SmileDirectClub partnership figures to offer customers a competitive edge in pricing, as well. It is estimated that a typical straightening via the service will cost about $2,000, significantly less than the typical $5,000 to $9,000 fee charged by most orthodontists.
Not surprisingly, this news has not been welcomed warmly by the dental and orthodontic communities. Almost immediately after the announcement, the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) said its members are "disappointed" with the CVS venture.
"Orthodontic treatment is not a product" the AAO statement read. "Rather, it is a complex medical process. The AAO believes it is in the best interest of consumers to have orthodontic treatment conducted under the direct and ongoing, in-person supervision of a licensed orthodontist.”
The opposition to this latest move only builds on the dental communities' long-standing stance against "direct-to-consumer" dental services. In late 2018, the American Dental Association formally adopted a firm policy against such services, citing the "potential for irreversible harm to patients."
"Bypassing the involvement and oversight of the dentist eliminates the dentist’s essential role in diagnosing oral health conditions, creating treatment plans to meet those needs, and safely managing treatment needs through the course of dental care," the ADA said in a statement. "By circumventing the involvement of a licensed dentist, patients lose a very important quality control checkpoint—their dentist—to ensure all aspects of their treatment are performed and are progressing in the best interests of the patient. This includes oversight of the manufacture of prosthetic devices, including disclosure of materials used and country of origin, ensuring that they are to the satisfaction of both patient and dentist."
Bridging the Gap
SmileDirectClub rejects such criticism. Defending its new partnership with CVS, the company noted that 60 percent of counties in the United States don’t have access to orthodontists, and that their service is “bridging that gap.”
“We have served more than half a million people with a quality, customer-first experience directed by state-licensed dentists and orthodontists. We are working with state dental boards to clarify misperceptions about our business model, and we will continue to work vigorously to defend against any entity that seeks to impact access to care.”
This is a fight that is unlikely to end anytime soon. The AAO says it has filed more than 30 complaints with state dental boards about SmileDirect and similar services, and will continue to do so in order to “protect public health and safety.”
As for the extent of the potential financial impact on dentists, that remains an open question. What seems certain, however, is more competition will put pricing pressure on dental practices.
Moreover, similar partnerships and new service offerings are likely to emerge in the years ahead. CVS, after all, is not the first non-conventional company to stake a claim in the dental sector.
Macy’s announced its own CVS-style partnership with SmileDirect last summer, while technology company Hewlett-Packard revealed in late May that it is working alongside SmileDirectClub to further disrupt the industry by leveraging 3D printing to churn out up to 50,000 unique teeth molds per day.
Author : Contributing writer Timothy Hyland has more than 20 years’ experience as a writer, reporter, and editor. His work has also appeared in Fast Company, Roll Call, Philadelphia Business Journal, and the Washington Times.
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