May 21 , 2004 -- At Dr. Glenn Alex's office, patients savor massages, wax hand treatments and facials.
They wear herbal eye masks, sip healthy drinks from the juice bar and rest their necks on warm pillows. They slip their feet into toasty booties, breathe in the sweet aroma of lavender and lemongrass and watch movies through video goggles. No, Alex isn't a massage therapist, but the Athens, Ga.-based dentist believes such pampering will make his office seem, well, less like a dentist's office.
He began creating the spa-like atmosphere -- a massage therapist works out of a converted treatment room -- about four years ago after the staff brainstormed ways to make dental appointments more appealing.
"It's changing people's perception of what it is to have dental treatment," Alex says. "People are looking forward to coming to the dentist."
That sums up the goal of a growing number of dentists across the country who have adopted the spa-dentistry concept, with luxuries nobody would have dreamed of in the traditional sterile dental office where the most comfortable thing around was the chair (even if those sitting in it rarely were).
It's hard to say how many dental offices have combined elements of the spa or other soothing touches with the more typical filling, drilling, root canals and such. However, anecdotal evidence suggests the idea is spreading in dental care, which federal officials say accounted for a record $65.6 billion in U.S. spending in 2001.
At one of the biggest dental conventions in the country, the Chicago Dental Society will offer a course at its midwinter meeting this weekend that includes tips on how to "create a comfortable spa-like atmosphere for patients and team."
"We've been seeing more and more focus on making our patients comfortable at the dentist office, and I think this whole spa-dentist office concept has come out of that," says Dr. Kimberly Harms, a consumer adviser to the American Dental Association (ADA). "And given the positive response from patients, I think you're going to see more and more of a trend in that direction."
Harms and her husband, James, both dentists, have an office in Farmington, Minn. She likes pampering in the dentist office in part because she empathizes with dental-phobic patients.
"We don't have a good reputation in the public," she concedes. And her view of getting dental care? "I'm a big baby. I hate going to the dentist."
However, Harms dreads it much less nowadays. After all, she's not only a dentist but a patient at her practice. And slipping on goggles to watch a movie somehow made getting a root canal much easier to bear.
That's but one of the plush features at the Harms' practice, which they renovated extensively after moving in a decade ago. Today, patients settle in to couches and easy chairs in a reception area painted in soothing pastels, read books or magazines from the library, nibble cookies and drink juice or coffee.
In treatment rooms, patients sit on chairs with back massagers and snuggle in warm blankets beneath ceilings with flowers painted on them. Instead of watching the needle or drill, they can take in a movie or gaze out the large picture windows at a garden with evergreen trees, flowers in summer and heated bird baths.
Harms says she and her husband don't charge additional fees for any of their non-dental services.
Other practices, such the Imagemax Dental Day Spa in Houston, charge separately for each service. Along with dentistry, Imagemax offers Swedish body massage, massage with hot stones, "body polishes" with sea salts, body wraps for weight loss, facials and Botox treatments, among other options.
The ADA, Harms says, considers quality dental care the top priority, but welcomes the meshing of luxury and dentistry for a simple reason.
"What will happen is patients will be more comfortable going to the dentist, and that will cause them to go more often," she says. "The ADA's main concern is the health and safety of our patients, and anything that can bring them into the office and improve their oral health is a darn good thing."
Harms sums up the boom in spa-dentistry this way: "It all really relates to what the patients are wanting, and we're not only dentists, we're small businesspeople. It's really fun to practice in an arena where you're giving patients what they want. I think it's a nicer way to practice dentistry, improving our lifestyle as well as patients' lifestyles."