The guest arrives for her 10:30 a.m. treatment. She is greeted by a smiling attendant and led to a small room. A scented candle glows in the corner; art lines the walls. The guest snuggles into an enormous leather chair, wrapped in a plush purple blanket and selects some Coltrane and Debussy from the music menu. As she slips the Bose headphones on, Shelley Fox starts to massage her feet.
Let the root canal begin. As the field of dentistry gets more competitive, an array of innovations are emerging to make people feel more comfortable in the chair. Several dental practices around the country now offer calming distractions from movies and music to massage and wine to ease what many people view as a stressful experience.
Lori Kemmet’s office is one of them. For several months now, Kemmet has had Fox and another massage therapist roaming her office, offering reflexology foot massage to her guests (don’t dare call them patients.)”Patient” just doesn’t fit the atmosphere,’ says Kemmet, who has created a spa-like environment in her south Border office. From the moment they walk in the door, guests are pampered, from the paraffin wax hand treatments and cloth hand towels in the bathroom to the snacks, wine or water offered by sapphire-clad attendants. No, wait, they also get looked after. Forget the white lab coats, they wear chic outfits: Some days they don a stylish khaki/black ensemble; other days you’ll find them in silky blouses. They are treated to rock climbing trips, and of course, enjoy a regular foot massage. ‘I feel funny calling (dentistry) work,’ Kemmet says. ‘Guests and team members are my friends.’
The trend toward kinder-gentler dentistry started with softer lighting and improved music (gone is the archaic dentist’s office mood music). But with roughly 165,000 licensed dentists practicing in the United States today, competition is getting tougher. It takes more than an aquarium bubbling in the waiting room to keep people smiling.
‘Dentists are always looking for ways to keep patients more relaxed and comfortable in the office,’ says Dr. Matt Messina, a consumer advisor and spokesman for the American Dental Association. Also a practicing dentist in the Cleveland area, he knows patients are consumers who are shopping for options. ‘Little things can make all the difference in the world,’ Messina says. He has stopped short of offering foot massage in his practice (he admits to being a bit squeamish about it), but he has deliberately designed a comforting atmosphere. ‘Subtle things, like sound deadening panels, and controlling line-of-sight,’ Messina says, can make a difference. In addition to not placing tool trays next to patients’ faces, he has buried plumbing lines and painted his soaring 9-foot-high ceilings in comforting tones. Also, he gives patients the remote control for the TV/video screen above them so that they “can control one little piece of the experience.’ ‘Massage isn’t just for pleasure in the dental setting,’ says Fox, a reflexologist with a regular practice in Longmont. When Fox kneads guests feet, she is working specific trigger points to put them at ease. “I have a lot of empathy, because I have a lot of anxiety about dentists myself,’ Fox says. ‘It is nice to be able to help.’ She manipulates specific pressure points associated with the lymph nodes to flush the body during tooth extractions and cleanings.
Sally MacMillan is taking a break from raising her 2-year-old twins to visit Kemmet. She has opted for a hand massage while Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli croons love songs to her through the headphones. ‘This is so wonderful,’ she purrs, midway through having three crowns replaced. ‘How nice can a dental experience be? But this is very pleasant.’
Other technological advances have enabled patients to see first-hand, what the dentists have been seeing for years. Through the use of intraoral cameras that project images on a screen, patients can see the decaying tooth that needs to come out. Boulder dentist Mark Birnbach has been using one in his office since 1995. He also owns a Sony Glastron, head-mounted movie playing glasses for patients to use during those lengthy procedures.
Across the country at Dr. Paul Tanners’ upscale New York City dental office, patients can have their teeth cleaned and their wrinkles removed in the same visit. Tanners has a plastic surgeon on site to administer collagen and Botox. ‘People take advantage of that,’ says Sasha Lee, Tanners’ receptionist. ‘You can have your smile brightened up and have a little TLC.’ But in the end, Messina says, the one-stop shop for the multi-tasker needs to provide the goods. ‘This all only works if the dentistry is first rate,’ he says.