Open Wide and Relax -- Really!

From movies to massages -- pampering at the dentist's office is becoming more popular.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on June 21, 2004
4 min read

"This was the best root canal ever." The words rolled off Susan Barnes' tongue with the same ease that a cringe usually would have at the mention of the dental procedure.

Yet the 35-year-old isn't a lover of pain, nor is she a stranger to it. With two prior root canals and a crown under her belt, she knows what hours of sitting through tooth drillings normally feels like.

Susan has a new dentist, one that has an office that looks more like someone's home. When patients come to visit, they're asked if they want anything from the juice bar, a warm blanket for comfort, or a moist towel to wash their face.

And, upon pleasantly being ushered into a dental chair -- which also doubles as a back massager -- they are given the option either to watch a movie through high-tech glasses, or to look out of arched, bay windows that frame gardens filled with chirping birds.

For her two-and-a-half-hour procedure, Susan chose to view the film "Miss Congeniality." The entertainment kept her busy enough to forget why she came.

"I had no pain during and I had no pain after [the treatment]," she says, admitting that she looked forward to her follow-up visit. As a stay-at-home mom and a part-time worker at Target, she rarely gets a chance to catch up on movies.

Clinics with boutique or spa-like amenities appear to be trickling into mainstream dental consciousness. In the last two years, companies that design oral health facilities have seen a spike in clients requesting special features such as massage and reflexology rooms, bars for cappuccino, juice, or mineral water, entertainment units, fireplaces, arboretums, and waterfalls.

"It's a niche market that's definitely becoming more common," says Daniel Block, a designer for Sullivan-Schein Dental, noting a 15% increase in boutique business in the western part of the U.S. alone. A competitor, Total Health Environment Design, reports a roughly 40% swell nationwide.

Dentists apparently want to cater to patients' needs, either by easing tension, or offering distraction or convenience. For pediatric practices, Block has designed rooms with video games and Internet access. For dentists' offices with corporate clients, business centers have been installed.

Mark Tholen, DDS, attributes the interest in the spa model to a growing desire to build customer confidence. "If people walk into an office that is of high design and very aesthetically pleasing, they are going to have a higher level of trust than if they walk into a little Jack-in-the-box-type of place," he says.

The dental trade has become more competitive in recent years, especially with the general improvements in public oral health. With fewer people being treated for tooth or gum disease and greater consumer demand to look and feel good, dentists have turned to cosmetic services, high-tech equipment, and enhanced customer service to keep business flowing.

It's not unusual, for instance, for a dentist to sit down with a patient in a beautifully decorated consultation room with a 19-inch TV monitor displaying a digital image of what the patient would look like if she decided to surgically alter some part of her mouth.

It is also not unheard of to have a dentist share space with another professional, such as a massage therapist or a plastic surgeon, and have patients use the services of each during one visit.

The American Dental Association is aware of boutique clinics, but has not issued an official statement on the topic.

One of the group's consumer advisers, Kimberly Harms, DDS, says the ADA's primary concern is that patients get the best oral healthcare possible. As long as the professionals involved are appropriately licensed, and everyone adheres to local and regional laws, the ADA sees no problem with it, and leaves such decisions to the individual dentist.

Harms should know. She is Susan Barnes' dentist, and since the installation of spa-like features in her office, business has tripled. She has been practicing this type of dentistry for almost a decade, however, and hesitantly admits to being ahead of the curve. "I just thought of how I would want to be treated as a patient," she says.

When asked whether the cost of spa-like services affects her dental fees, Harms says her family keeps up the office and gardens so there has not been much overhead to pass along to patients. Her situation may be unique, she confesses, adding that, "Typically, you get what you pay for."

At some new boutique dental offices, that may mean a foot massage during a cleaning, a consultation with a plastic surgeon about getting Botox injections, cookies and a smile to go.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Susan Barnes. Daniel Block, designer, Sullivan-Schein Dental. Total Health Environment Design. Mark Tholen, DDS. American Dental Association. Kimberly Harms, DDS.

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