With the announcement that Amazon is buying up Whole Foods, the online retailer is again flexing its muscles. In Whole Foods, they are getting a true market innovator who almost single-handedly drove the crunchy, feel-good food craze. The question is what comes next? We’ve speculated that Amazon is eyeing up dental products. As dentistry goes, so goes orthodontics. Will patients be logging in to their Amazon account to buy Whole Food fair-trade coffee, Guatemalan hemp dental floss and gluten-free, organic buccal tubes? Is orthodontics about to get crunchy?
All kidding aside, whether or not Amazon wanders into the orthodontic space, the tectonic plates under orthodontics are already shifting. These changes are fundamentally altering how the orthodontist interacts with the orthodontic marketplace.
Already, orthodontists have more choices than ever when it comes to sourcing their orthodontic supplies. They can now go direct to the seller, they can order through a third-party supplier, or they can be a part of a group buying collective. Plus, thanks to the internet and globalization (the Batman and Robin of commerce) they now have instantaneous access to suppliers from all over the world. And it’s not just the Amazon’s or the Schein’s of the world either.
Spend a few moments online searching for orthodontic brackets. Once you get a few pages past the initial search results, you’ll start finding a number of “micro-manufacturers” who have patented their own designs. There are diamond shaped brackets, gold brackets, plastic amalgams…and these are just the designs that have made it online. Who knows how many other designs are lurking in the minds of the ortho community, just waiting for the technology to catch up to their vision. How long will it be before the doctor can print customized appliances for each patient?
Of course, there’s another trend reshaping these relationships; the rise of the DSO. As consolidation in the dental market trickles down to specialty disciplines like orthodontics, the profession will have to adapt accordingly. Doctors in the DSO are likely to have far less input when it comes to purchasing decisions. Whereas most orthodontists cherry-pick the exact instruments and appliances they want, standardization is one of the key tenets of the DSO. Mind you, management won’t be able to blindly implement any inventory they please. While the orthodontist is a member of the DSO, they are also “talent” and therefore, a scarce resource. This means that they will always have a certain amount of leverage they can exert.
While predicting what comes next is all but impossible, the past ten years lets us make some educated guesses. What’s likely to emerge is an amalgamation of “bricks and clicks”, a blended mix of online efficiency and in-person interaction. This trend will continue to weaken—or at least change—the fundamental relationship between the ortho and their salesman. But all is not lost! Our guess here is that there will always be a need for the human touch. Because the last decade tells us that no matter how good the automation becomes, there will always be room for the human-to-human relationship. At least until Amazon acquires relationships. Then, all bets are off.
Related article: The Future (of Orthodontics) Remains Unwritten