Pampered by Dentists

Island dentists are offering the kind of soothing treatments found in spas, from massages to facials. It's filling, with feeling.


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The inviting setting of Dr. Wynn Okuda’s dental spa helps calm the fears of patients. photos: Olivier Koning

Instead of hearing your dentist say, "Now, this procedure is going to be long and possibly painful," imagine hearing, "Would you like to watch a DVD during your root canal or would you rather listen to an iPod?" Or, "Do you want a foot massage while we put in your porcelain veneers?"

These questions may seem odd, but dentists in Honolulu and across America are now adding spa amenities to their offices, not only to make their patients more comfortable, but to dispel their reputations as pain-inflicting doctors.

Although it may be hard to imagine the dentistry and spa professions merging, some offices are even taking their practices to the next level, deeming themselves "dental spas," adding everything from facials to pedicures to their services.

Kimberly Harms, spokesperson for the American Dental Association explains the root of the trend, saying, "What we have discovered in the last 20 years or so is that there's a patient attached to the teeth that we are working on." She adds, "Dentistry in general received a bad reputation from patients for many years, because people were so afraid of the dentist, so we're working hard as a profession to change that image and make [the dental office] a warm and inviting place."

Wynn Okuda, one of the innovators of the dental spa trend and former president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, he attributes the opening of his Dental Day Spa in Kaimuki to his own horrific dental experiences as a child. "The pain was so intense that I ripped the upholstery off of the seat," recalls Okuda. "It was those beginnings that basically told me, there must be a better way of treating people and making it so that dentistry isn't so terrible."

Offices are adding perks such as hand massages to regular dental exams.

Some of the services Okuda offers for longer appointments include a limo ride to his office, a half-hour massage before a procedure, 3-D movie glasses for watching a DVD and a personal massage therapist to provide reflexology throughout the entire procedure—which can last for seven hours or more.

For William Smith, one of Okuda's patients, these services were the added touch that finally prompted him to get porcelain veneers. "The whole experience was a little bit like a dream. It was something that I was dreading and it turned out to be something that was not only relaxing, but it changed my life afterwards, because my smile is so great." Okuda says that this therapeutic aspect of spa dentistry goes beyond mere pampering, because it helps people agree to life-changing procedures that they may otherwise have been too afraid to have done.

To add to the comforting experience, Okuda's office omitted the usual banal elements of a dental environment, such as uninviting décor and clinical smells. "When you walk into a regular dentist's office, immediately there are certain triggers that start bringing up your anxiety," says Okuda. "What we try and do is mask them, disguise them and distract you from them so you are unaware that you are in a dental office."

Okuda and his architect designed the space so that the patient waiting room isn't completely separated from the back office. "There's no feared door that opens and says, You're next," he explains. Instead, the office remains open and unthreatening, with tranquil paintings of landscapes, burning candles and the light sound of an indoor waterfall echoing against the marble floors.

Pleasant décor touches and calming aromas help soothe patients.

Not all offices are transforming into full-blown dental spas. Some dentists are simply adding spa perks to their practices. A 2004 survey by the American Dental Association found that about half of all dentists today offer some kind of spa service to their patients. The most common perks include headphones, neck rests, beverages and snacks, and warm towels. However, nearly 5 percent of dental professionals are offering massages, facials, manicures and pedicures.

Upon entering Kurt Nishiguchi's office, for instance, patients are given a menu of services from which to choose, including a variety of lip balms that are re-applied by the hygienist during their appointment, a paraffin hand-wax treatment, a massage cushion and a soft, cozy blanket to keep them warm. "Anything that will make our patients more comfortable is good for us, because we are breaking down the barriers that prevent them from coming, and [it's] good for them because it passes the time," says Nishiguchi. "And the thing is, if they aren't comfortable, they aren't going to come back and they aren't going to tell their friends about us, so this is how it works."

A referral is exactly how Aubrey Yee found Nishiguchi. "A friend had recommended him to me and said ‘Make sure you get the paraffin hand-wax.'" Yee adds that this was the best dental experience she's ever had. "It was a very comfortable atmosphere and you could tell that he tried to take some thing that to a lot of people can be a really bad experience and make it as good as possible."

Like most dental offices, Nishiguchi doesn't charge for the spa services that come with a dental treatment, which consequently gives him a leg up in the increasingly competitive dentistry field. Eric Nelson, director of public relations for the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, says, "From a patient's perspective, they may choose to go to a dental spa over a traditional practice if they know they will be pampered and not be charged for the extra care."

Dr. Kurt Nishiguchi offers services to pamper patients, including a paraffin hand treatment.

The ADA's Harms says, "Every dentist has a certain level of amenities that they offer to make people more comfortable, and it just really matters to what degree." Cecile Sebastian, for instance, hires an outside massage therapist to give patients with longer procedures a complimentary one-hour massage afterwards. "The clients really enjoy it and are so appreciative of it," she says.

Jonathan Cross falls into the 5-percent category, as he has a full-time skin therapist in his dental office, allowing patients to combine treatments such as teeth whitening and a facial into a package deal. "Everyone has a pretty hectic pace of life nowadays, so it's nice when you can get two things done at one time," he says.

Patients aren't the only ones benefiting from spalike perks. Jon Yoshimura also makes the patients' comfort level one of his highest priorities and is seeing the benefits. "Our patient numbers have grown substantially by just paying more attention to their needs," he says. "For me, just knowing that my patients are more comfortable not only puts me at ease, but helps to cut down on treatment time and develops a better doctor-patient relationship."

To some extent, the dental spa trend is also being driven by the patients themselves, and their ever-increasing expectations. "Patients are not opting for just what their insurance is covering anymore. A lot of patients are choosing the best treatments for themselves and they want to use the best materials," says Jason Ako. "They're now saying, I don't really care if it's not covered, because I don't want the silver, copper or mercury in my mouth." He explains that, because patients are now paying more out-of-pocket expenses, they are expecting that when they come into a dental office they are going to be treated at a higher level. Ako completed a major remodel of his office two years ago, adding iPods, individual DVD monitors and leather chairs, in part to meet these new expectations.

A little high-tech, a little ocean blue – the view from Dr. Ken Yasuhara’s office.

Ken Yasuhara also designed his office nearly five years ago—not only to create a less imposing environment, but to create an office with a wow factor attached to it. "If you are presenting a large, extensive treatment and your office has orange carpets and vinyl upholstery, it just doesn't match the kind of work that you are doing," says Yasuhara. His office is in the Ala Moana Building, and among the many noteworthy features is the impressive dental-chair view of the ocean.

One surprise development that's emerged in dental spas is a strange, new problem for dentists—getting their patients to go home. "People don't want to leave the office, and since we want our patients to have a positive experience, we'll let them finish their movie if they want to," says Okuda. "Some people even say, ‘Are you done or do you have any more to do?' In the past people couldn't get out of the dental office fast enough."

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