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Would You Like a Facial with That Filling? Dental Spas Luxe Take on Dentistry is a Hit with Patients

Would You Like a Facial with That Filling? Dental Spas Luxe Take on Dentistry is a Hit with Patients

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Peggy Gill leans back in the massage chair, relaxing amid the scent of lavender, as a warm paraffin wax treatment softens her hands. Later, Peggy will receive a hand massage and perhaps an eyebrow wax by the aesthetician. The soft lighting and classical music might fool you into thinking she’s at an expensive resort, but the clip-on bib she wears and the swiveling lamp overhead are dead giveaways. Still, there’s no doubt about it – Peggy Gill is definitely enjoying her dental appointment.

A few years ago dental office décor seldom ventured beyond a fish tank in the lobby and a few bland paintings in the checkup rooms. But, as dental spas are quickly learning, you catch more flies with facials than with fluoride. Today’s dentists are incorporating spa-like elements into their practices in hopes of creating an atmosphere more appealing to patients in an increasingly competitive market. At these luxurious practices, termed “dental spas,” aromatherapy and hot stone massages are offered alongside dental bonding and root canals. The combination might seem bizarre, but many formerly apprehensive patients embrace the concept as a way to make dental treatment something to look forward to.

At the Atlanta Center for Cosmetic Dentistry, massage therapists loosen patients up in a vibrating “Zen chair” before treatments at no additional cost. Though they might seem decadent, pre-dentistry spa treatments have functional benefits. “There is more risk of injury like nicking [a patient’s] tongue if they are jumping around and tense,” explains Dr. Debra Gray King, a dentist at the center. “This helps them relax and not think, ‘OK, there’s somebody drilling in my mouth.’” After their appointment, patients may choose to receive a full-body massage in an adjacent spa room.

Alleviating patient anxiety is a growing priority in dentistry, where fear keeps many from seeking out much-needed dental services. Spa dentistry has emerged as an alternative to sedation dentistry for patients who find receiving dental treatment stressful or simply wish to make dental appointments a more pleasurable experience.

What started out as just a few extra perks in the waiting room – a juice bar, scented candles – has become a rapidly growing million-dollar industry. Some practices have embraced the concept so completely, they have incorporated salon services into their dental spas. Patients at SPADENT in the tiny town of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, can receive hairstyling and sunless spray tanning at the dentist’s office. Best of all, short spa treatments including paraffin hand wax treatment and foot massage are provided at no extra charge as complements to restorative or cosmetic dentistry procedures.

Although its popularity has resurged only within the past several years, spa dentistry is no modern innovation. Throughout the 18 th and 19 th centuries, barbers and dentists practiced together. “That’s why the barber chairs and dental chairs are a lot alike,” says SPADENT dentist and founder Dr. Monsman. European aristocrats during this period frequently “took the waters” at mountain resorts and hot springs, where doctors would prescribe medical treatment. These antecedents to the modern medical spa provided places for relaxing aesthetic improvement and health to go hand in hand. Doctors at dental spas today attempt to do the same, and patients have been more than appreciative.

The growing popularity of spa treatments in health clubs and resorts fueled the popularity of the combination spa/medical practice in the early 2000s. Between 1997 and 2002, the niche grew 143 percent. Credit the recent boom in teeth whitening with bridging the wide gap between spa and dental office. Dentists, aestheticians, and masseuses were soon working together to provide whitening alongside more common spa treatments. Before long, dental spas began to emerge, branching off from the medical spa trend and marketing themselves as an appealing new take on the dreaded dental appointment.

Experts say dissatisfaction with unfriendly, cold offices and rushed, standardized treatment has driven many patients away from a traditional approach to dentistry. “In the last 20 years, dentists have been focusing more and more on the needs of the patients attached to the teeth,” says Dr. Kimberly Harms, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association. After experiencing dental spas’ individualized, relaxing approach, many patients never go back. As Martha Dickey, a 47-year-old dental spa devotee, put it, “I feel like I’m doing something pleasurable for myself when I go. It’s really exhilarating to walk into a high-style spa/dental office.”

Dickey’s experience reflects what patients say they want from the overcrowded dental care industry – personalized, more comfortable medical treatment. Dental spas provide exactly that, forcing the competition to respond with amped-up amenities focused on improving the patient’s in-office experience. Dr. Harms’ office in Farmington, Minnesota provides music and video entertainment options to patients in the waiting room, and another dental office even puts flat-screen TVs on the ceiling so patients can watch their favorite shows while reclining in the chair.

Dental schools have begun to offer courses on spa dentistry, a sign that perhaps the dental spa is here to stay. Dentist Glenn Alex, DMD, FAGD, claims that spa dentistry helps both patient and practitioner feel more comfortable during dental treatment. “The whole idea is to create a more positive environment for the patient. Our patients love being pampered,” Dr. Alex notes. “Dentistry can be a stressful profession. This is a great environment for us to be in as well.”

Dental spas are not for every dentist or every patient, however. New York City dentist Dr. Leslie W. Seldin, for example, is concerned about the growing popularity of “one stop shopping for health care.” He asks, “Are people now going to go to a dermatologist and say, ‘I wish I could get my teeth cleaned here’? When people come to my office they come for dental care, and if they want a foot massage or BOTOX® they should go to the places that provide them.”

Some patients, too, are skeptical about this new twist on traditional dentistry. As one woman in Washington, D.C. put it, “When I go to the dentist, I want to get out of there as quickly as possible. Getting a facial or pedicure would not change that.”

Regardless, spa dentistry is changing how many patients view dental treatment in a way that positively impacts their oral health. Those who formerly dreaded or feared visits to the dentist now not only do not put appointments off; they schedule them more frequently. “Dental spas are coming up like mushrooms. They are offering massages and facials,” says Hannelore Leavy, executive director of the Medical Spa Association. “What those dentists are telling us is that patients actually want to come to the dentist.”

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