The power of disrupting yourself: Q&A with SmileDirectClub's Dr. Jeffrey Sulitzer

Since its founding in 2014, teledentistry company SmileDirectClub has grown its clear aligner platform significantly to reach 1.7 million patients and stocked their oral health products at nearly 13,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada.

Most recently, the company has marked its growth with several executive appointments, new products and awards, including recognition as one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S. by Financial Times and having the best telehealth platform by Medtech BreakThrough.

SmileDirectClub's Chief Clinical Officer Jeffrey Sulitzer, DMD, recently spoke with Becker's about the growth of the company's telehealth platform, its future plans for innovation in dentistry and how it stays ahead of the competition.

Editor's note: Responses were edited lightly for clarity and brevity.

Question: How would you describe SmileDirectClub's recent growth?

Dr. Jeffrey Sulitzer: First we innovated this model, which is to give access to care to people who don't have access to orthodontics today. Now we're even focusing on creating more of a future oral care company by disrupting ourselves, and we're doing this in basically five major categories of just making it easier to get started with clear aligner therapy and also increasing the ability to accept more complex treatment plans. So we keep innovating and making our clinical abilities better. We're creating a next generational aligner that is much more comfortable to wear and has more capabilities in tooth movement. We're focused on keeping smiles healthy for life, which is kind of where we want to be. 

While there are other companies out there aiming to do what we do, nobody can compare with these advantages that we talk about, where we have a lifetime smile guarantee, as long as the patient is compliant with the doctors' directives. Our treatment plans are typically four to six months, not years, and we can get the patient's chief complaint addressed. From a cost perspective, SmileDirectClub is 60 percent less than traditional braces or Invisalign. We have two different payment options and we also have in-network coverage for seven of the top 10 dental insurers, and we're going to be adding an eighth and ninth.  

Q: How is the company staying on its toes and making sure it's constantly evolving?

JS: We have access to over 1.7 million customers' data. No other entity that does what we do [has that]. Even an organization that's been around longer than us doing clear aligners for 20 years, they don't have access to the clinical data from the very beginning to the very end. So that gives us the ability to utilize that data so that we can constantly improve [and] update our software, maybe get more aggressive with certain types of clinical presentations, certain cases that we might not have been able to effectively treat years ago we can treat now [and] make things more comfortable for patients. We listen to our patients. The care is prescribed, directed, and managed by our affiliated network of over 240 state licensed general dentists and orthodontists who have a minimum of five years of clear aligner experience and so on. We can compile all that data as a data aggregator and we can create all sorts of opportunities even through [artificial intelligence] that are just unmatchable anywhere else. We keep making our systems better and better. We challenge ourselves more than our competitors because we're the ones that are on the cutting edge.

Q: What challenges has the company had to overcome in its journey?

JS: With any new innovation, when you're this disruptive, you get a lot of pushback from the existing establishment, if you will. So, there's a host of challenges and misinformation that's out there about our model. And some of that is actually generated from the established, organized dentistry. So we push back on these organizations, we educate them, we're trying to stop them from blocking the competition because they have their own interests in mind. You would think they're looking for safety for patients, but it's really more about their own scenarios and their own economics than it is about patient safety. So we continue to work hard to educate on the safety, the efficacy and the clinical credibility of our model. We want to work closely and collaboratively with these organizations, and we have positive relationships with many of the dental boards in each of the states.

Q: What are the company's plans for future innovation?

JS: We're so excited about our growth. We're growing our partner network relationships with local practices via what we call the partner network. Our customers are able to start their journey from the dentist chair, and a lot of patients like to do that. We're also going to be launching a premium offer, which is basically focusing on an option for higher income consumers that takes more of a hybrid approach leveraging our partner network, this network of thousands of dentists, and that convenience of our telehealth platform. So the experience will be unmatched in any environment that's out there today. 

We're pushing our portfolio on tech innovation because we're really a medtech platform, and we want to be the leader in oral care. We want to make it easier for our customers to start their clear aligner therapy. We want to increase their ability to be treated [by] accepting more complex treatment plans. We want to be able to create a next generational aligner that is significantly more comfortable to wear. And more importantly, compliance is a big thing. We want to keep our patients on track and we have all sorts of technologies we're going to be introducing shortly that will enhance that ability for customers to stay on track and keep their aligners producing the predicted outcomes we're looking for, with the goal of keeping smiles healthy for life.

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