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Relax and say, "Ahhh"

Stressed about that dental cleaning and exam? Some spa-like offices now offer aromatherapy, facials, even massages.

February 19, 2007|Victoria Clayton | Special to The Times

WHEN Thousand Oaks artist Beverly Schlechter was looking for a new dentist last year, one particular mailer caught her eye. It was a glossy brochure printed in soothing greens and taupes, with beautiful smiling women on fluffy white towels strewn with fresh leaves, and with phrases such as "complimentary juice bar," "massage chair" and "paraffin hand wax."

At first she assumed the brochure was announcing the opening of yet another day spa. But upon closer inspection, she noticed that those women had beautiful white teeth and that the mailer was advertising the services of a dentist, Dr. Kamyar Nouri, who recently had opened a private practice nearby.

"This was all new to me. I'd been with the same dentist for 30 years and had never heard of a dental office with spa amenities," Schlechter says. Foot reflexology, aromatherapy and paraffin hand dips may be far from standard fare in the nation's dental offices, but some dentists are finding that such services not only comfort patients but create a buzz about their practice as well.

Already, about half of dentists nationwide offer some sort of spa element, according to a 2004 American Dental Assn. survey. The most common are headphones and neck rests, followed by warm towels and complimentary snacks or beverages. An estimated 5% offer amenities such as massages, facials and hand and foot treatments.

Southern California has approximately 20 dental spas, according to Dr. Lynn Watanabe, a Pacific Palisades dentist who, with her husband John Chien, formed the International Dental Spa Assn. in 2002.

"Major metro areas such as Los Angeles and New York City are definitely leading the way with the number of dental spas, but it's still such a new concept for most people," Watanabe says. "Too few people believe that you can look forward to going to the dentist."

Watanabe says patient reaction has been overwhelmingly positive since she turned her practice into a dental spa -- offering hand and foot massages as well as lengthier, post-treatment massages and facials.

"Traditionally, nobody has ever liked the dentist," agrees Dr. Andrea Mulas, whose West Hollywood dental practice began offering light "refresher" facials and complimentary hand and foot reflexology about a year ago. "Using the latest technology has changed a lot of that, but also adding these spa-type services helps. I always tell my patients that my first goal is to keep them relaxed and keep a smile on their faces."

And after they leave, says Mulas, he wants his patients to talk -- a lot. "To a dentist, word of mouth is everything. That's how you get most of your patients." Mulas says he's learned that anything a dentist does to increase a patient's comfort and the appeal of the office pays off in referrals. "If they like you and the office, if they feel pampered and taken care of, they always tell their friends," he says. He's even started selling candles, oils and lotions in his office.

Making 'the experience less threatening'

Some dentists, such as Watanabe and Nouri, say their motives are purely patient comfort.

"The reason I did this is because I wanted people like Beverly or even the worse cases, the people who can barely make it into the office for cleanings, to be able to relax here," says Nouri, a clinical instructor at USC School of Dentistry. "One of my new patients hasn't been to the dentist for 15 years."

Estimates vary but dental journal studies indicate that from 5% to 15% of the population avoids dental care because they are dentophobic (a real anxiety disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Dental journals are filled with studies on fear and how to calm patients.

Nouri says spa amenities probably won't cure a true dental phobic. Some patients still have to take anxiety medication just to get their teeth cleaned, he admits. "But anything we can do to make the experience less threatening helps."

Dr. Debra Gray King, an Atlanta dentist who has been featured on ABC's "Extreme Makeover," has been offering spa services since 1994. She has gone as far as piping special music out to the parking lot of her office, which is housed in a Twelve Oaks-style mansion.

King sees the dental spa concept as a good marriage between patient care and savvy marketing. "Last month I had a patient who came to me from Luxembourg," she says. "When I first started out, it would drive me crazy because people would say they moved across town and I was too far away!"

But, she warns, dental spas don't work if they're all fluff. "The consumer still has to do a little research," King says.

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