Is SmileDirectClub’s teeth-straightening service medically sound?
NBC News called that into question with a report Thursday citing dozens of Better Business Bureau customer complaints about the clear-plastic aligner treatment, saying it has led to “painful problems for some people.”
Now, SmileDirectClub is slamming the NBC News report, saying it was not accurate or balanced and fails to recognize the more than three-quarters of a million people who have undergone the treatment safely.
Investors appear to be unsettled by the report. SmileDirectClub’s stock fell 4.8% in pre-market trading to $14.60 on Friday.
The spat comes amid a nationwide boom for clear-plastic removable teeth aligners, which offer an alternative to traditional braces. SmileDirectClub is a rapidly growing competitor to the more established service, Align Technology’s Invisalign.
The biggest difference between SmileDirectClub and Invisalign is that Invisalign customers are required to visit a dentist or orthodontist in person to get their treatment plan launched and administered. Most SmileDirectClub customers get their mouths scanned through a 3D system in person or an at-home putty impression kit, after which they receive aligners in the mail and have their progress monitored remotely.
The clash also marks the latest dramatic chapter in an intensely competitive industry defined by lawsuits, patent disputes, aggressive marketing, allegations of greedy interest groups and accusations of law-breaking.
NBC’s report quoted Richmond, Virginia, customer Anna Rosemond saying she followed the SmileDirectClub treatment plan but began experiencing pain after a year. She was diagnosed by an independent orthodontist with a crossbite that was “possibly caused by the aligners,” NBC reported.
Chung Kau, chairman and professor of orthodontics at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, told NBC that moving someone’s teeth without in-person supervision can lead to “irreparable” harm, such as migraines and jaw joint problems.
SmileDirectClub on Friday criticized the NBC report for failing to include “one interview or statement from the more than 750,000 satisfied customers who have used our products to improve their lives, nor does it include a single interview with any of the hundreds of dentists who have publicly supported our technology.”
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“We are surprised by the journalist’s blatant disregard for the facts and failure to include all of the accurate information we provided,” the company said.
An NBC spokesperson who promoted the report to the media did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment Friday.
SmileDirectClub says that dentists or orthodontists monitor each patient’s treatment remotely through photos and chats and are prepared to adjust or extend the treatment plan when necessary. The service typically starts at less than $2,000 and can handle cases of mild complexity. More complex cases can be handled by Invisalign or braces.
In a USA TODAY report on the booming business in December 2018, an independent industry expert said there was no evidence of any significant issues with the SmileDirectClub service.
The service has drawn criticism from the American Association of Orthodontists, or AAO, which filed complaints against SmileDirectClub in dozens of states, saying the company’s do-it-yourself model violates dental-practice laws.
The interest group also issued a “consumer warning” about SmileDirectClub and other mail-order orthodontics businesses.
“Orthodontics is the movement of biological material, and it’s best done under the supervision of a licensed orthodontist,” Sean Murphy, AAO’s general counsel, told USA TODAY in the 2018 report. “If not done correctly, (it) can lead to potentially irreversible and expensive damage, such as tooth and gum loss, changed bites and other issues.”
Jeffrey Sulitzer, SmileDirectClub’s chief clinical officer, told USA TODAY at the time that the AAO is a special interest group that is trying to preserve orthodontists’ “Mercedes pricing” on braces. Braces typically cost thousands of dollars more than SmileDirectClub’s aligners.
SmileDirectClub’s service, Sulitzer said, is safe.
“The doctor is the one who’s managing the case from the very beginning to the very end,” Sulitzer said. “These doctors that are affiliated with us — most of them have a bricks-and-mortar practice. And they treat their patients within the same standards of care that they treat their bricks-and-mortar patients. And they’re also regulated by the dental boards.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.