Spa dentist offices treat patients like royalty

SUWANEE - What better way to beat dental phobia than a glass of merlot and a movie?

Here, in this tiny practice, a bit of alcohol and entertainment are just a few methods to numb lingering childhood fears of the dentist. The overall approach: emphasize tranquility.

Gone are bad wallpaper and harsh fluorescent lighting. This office has Italian courtyard decor, with grapevines hanging from the ceiling.

Forget feeling trapped in that stiff dentist's chair. Here, chairs have "memory foam" and can apply a massage. Not soothing enough? Have a manicure or a facial.

A concierge greets patients at the door. Exams are more like consultations.

In a competitive industry where dentists market the perfect smile - and patients pay about a $1,000 per veneer to get it - Dr. Judson Connell markets customer service.

The strategy is known as spa dentistry, and his Exceptional Dentistry at John's Creek is not the only one using it.

The trend originated several years ago in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles, said Eric Nelson, with the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry in Madison, Wis.

"It started essentially as a way to alleviate fears of the dentist office," Nelson said.

Practices that embrace the idea typically offer fruit juices, massages and aroma therapy. Some dentists even pass out iPods for listening in the waiting room.

The concept took off, Nelson said. Spa dentistry courses grew packed. New practices opened across the United States. While the trend hasn't made its way to Main Street, it's getting close.

"It may have started in Manhattan, but you can probably find them in Omaha now," Nelson said.

Connell changed the way he practiced cosmetic dentistry six years ago.

He was seeing 30 to 40 patients a day in his Savannah office.

"I call it a tooth mill," Connell said. "I was going from one patient to the next, never really taking enough time to get to know them. I decided it was time to take my roller skates off."

He met Bill Dickerson - founder of the Las Vegas Institute of Advanced Dental Studies. Dickerson preached the benefits of fewer patients each day.

"He became my mentor and took me under his wing," Connell said. "People were so scared to see the dentist. Now we've created something like a Ritz Carlton."