Some can't wait to see spa dentist

Heated chairs, DVDs, massage employed to soothe fearful patients

Health & Fitness

March 14, 2004|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,Special to the Sun

If the dentist's words "open wide" fill you with fear, help may be on the way.

A number of dentists, hoping to relieve anxiety, pamper their patients and bring them back for regular visits, are offering comforts typically reserved for a trip to the spa.

Heated chairs with massage pads, warm hand towels served on silver platters, televisions with DVD players and coffee and juice bars have lately been turning up at dental practices. A few dentists have even combined their offices with full-service day spas. So now your six-month checkup could be followed by a full-body massage.

A 2001 poll conducted by the American Dental Association showed that 23 percent of adults hadn't gone to the dentist in the previous year because of fear of pain.

Perry Hall resident Linda Dulny was once a member of that fearful group, describing her early dental experiences as "horrendous." But she no longer frets about going to the dentist and even looks forward to visits at the Towson practice of Albert Ousborne Jr., Patrick Ousborne and Thomas Keller.

"They are like family," she says.

The Ousbornes, a father-and-son team, and Keller say they try to comfort their patients in every way possible.

"We want to strive for excellence in dentistry and in customer service," says Patrick Ousborne, 38. "We try to make it a more positive experience rather than having people dread coming to the dentist."

When patients enter the office, there is no counter with a sign-in clipboard. Instead, someone comes out to greet them.

In the waiting room, patients are offered fresh-baked cookies, cappuccino, hot tea, water or juice. During the appointment, patients can use headphones for music, watch television or have a warming massage pad placed on the back of their chair.

And after the visit, patients are given a warm, scented towel to wash their face and hands. Lip balm and even wine with the Ousborne and Keller label may be handed out.

"A lot of patients are older, and this is sometimes the highlight of their day," says Albert Ousborne, who has been in practice 40 years. "It all comes down to making people feel that it's going to be a positive experience. If we are running more than 10 minutes late, we give out gifts as a way of saying, 'we respect your time.'"

Dulny, who says she enjoys the fresh-baked cookies, adds that all the amenities make a difference. "It shows me they are really trying to make me comfortable," she says.

Dentist Kimberly Baer, owner of Bethesda Dental Spa, says she did a lot of research before opening a full-service spa as part of her dental practice last fall.

"We got into it from a relaxation standpoint," Baer says. "We found that if we gave our patients a massage, the anesthetic worked better and lasted longer. We've had a really great response."

Baer's dental spa (her original practice in Bethesda, Baer and Associates, opened in 2002) offers a range of dental procedures as well as skin care services, laser hair removal and massage therapy. Most dental procedures come with a complimentary hand, neck or foot massage or mini-facial.

Prices for dental services are not above averages elsewhere, she says, even with the complimentary massages, and her practice takes most forms of insurance. Fees for full-service spa techniques are extra.

"We found it just makes it worthwhile to give our patients these free treatments," she says, in part because of referrals. Baer says her practice is averaging about 36 new patients a month.

"It's great. Especially for those people who just hate going to the dentist," she explains. "People realize it's just a regular dental office unless you want the extra services. Anyone who comes to my office or another office that is doing something like this is not going to go back to a regular dental office."

Baltimore resident Kruti Mehta says she used to return to her hometown of Cleveland for dental check-ups because she didn't feel comfortable with anyone but her family dentist. Then her dentist retired, and one of her fillings fell out. The self-described spa connoisseur heard about Bethesda Dental Spa and decided to give it a try.

"The minute you walk in, an aroma of vanilla and spices envelops you," Mehta says. "There are big leather couches and little waterfalls with candles everywhere. You have no idea you are in a dental office."

Mehta, a contractor, travels to the Washington area several times a week for work, but says the drive to the dental spa would be "well worth it" even if she wasn't already in the area.

Baer's operation is independent, but there is a chain of dental spas now in operation. Started in 2002 by California dentist Lynn Watanabe, the Dental Spa is now in five cities, including Pacific Palisades, Calif., the San Francisco Bay area, Ann Arbor, Mich., New York and Seoul, Korea.

"There is tremendous interest for what we are doing," says

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