A standard visit to the dentist might go something like this: You are ushered into a putty-colored room, where you lie back and tensely examine the pores in the ceiling tiles while a stranger roots around in your mouth, poking your gums and occasionally smearing fruit-flavored polishing paste onto your chin. Best case scenario is you leave with satisfyingly clean teeth, chapped lips, and the burning desire to run home and wash your face.
But the experience of going to the dentist, a classic locus of dread and discomfort, has been changing. Across the country, a growing number of practices offer patients cushy amenities like aromatherapy, blankets, massage chairs, noise-canceling headphones, light snacks, and espresso drinks. They have TVs mounted on the ceiling, where patients can play the Netflix show of their choosing. They give out warm eucalyptus- or lavender-scented towels at the end of the visit, so people can wipe off the gritty cleaning crud caked on their faces. They have lip balm.
“We wanted it to be a spa-like experience,” says Wesley Smith, a partner at Warmstone Family Dentistry in Ottawa, Ontario, which opened in July 2017.
Warmstone, a name that even sounds like a massage treatment, was built on the idea that modern dental practices can thrive by transforming tooth care into an “experience” — it’s similar to the thinking that has led retailers to reevaluate the function of a store. Smith, who is a business partner at Warmstone but not a dentist, says that the team looked at upscale hotels, restaurants, and spas when mapping out the company’s approach to customer service. The practice has gone all in on perks: Its waiting room, renamed a “patient lounge,” features a waterfall and fireplace, with spa music and essential oils diffusing in the air. Patients can order a latte while selecting extras for their procedure from the “Comfort Menu,” including massage chairs, eye masks, knee and neck pillows, and Netflix.
While Smith describes Warmstone as a “dental spa,” a term that’s been kicking around for years but for which the American Dental Association doesn’t have a clear definition. (Nor does the ADA have data on the prevalence of fancy amenities in dentists’ offices.) Warmstone doesn’t even lean as far into that notion as some practices: Heritage Dental Spa & Salon in Bluffton, South Carolina, functions as a hair and nail salon and spa as well as a dental office.
The noblest reason, perhaps, for offering a buffet of perks is that they minimize patients’ anxiety about going to the dentist. Even as some patients trivialize the medical nature of dentistry — which, the Atlantic reports, “is often sidelined from medicine at large” — they fear the power that dentists wield over them: According to a 2015 study conducted by the ADA, 22 percent of adults who hadn’t visited the dentist in a year cited fear as a reason for not going more often.
“I work with patients to understand their anxieties and fears, and amenities like a massage chair in a dental practice can greatly calm patients who experience dental anxiety,” says ADA spokesperson Tricia Quartey, also a practicing dentist in Brooklyn, New York. “Amenities like espresso bars and warm towels can help make patients feel more comfortable and lead patients to be more likely to return for regular visits — which can result in fewer dental health issues down the road.”
For some patients, a massage chair or aromatherapy really does soothe their nerves. Sydnie Mares, a social media professional based in Houston, says the heated neck pillow and Bluetooth headphones that her local dental practice gives out have eased her discomfort while undergoing dental work.
“The heated neck pillow calms the tension that I feel, but having Netflix playing through headphones probably makes the most difference,” Mares writes in an email. “When I had [my] wisdom teeth pulled, I was able to just watch Friends and not focus on the sounds that the tools were making in my mouth.”
In fact, it wasn’t until this practice introduced its various amenities — which also include hot chocolate, water, and light snacks — that Mares started making regular appointments.
“I’m sure my dentist is good at what he does, but I plan on going back purely because of all the pampering,” she writes.
Indeed, giving patients a plush experience is very much a business tactic, meant to increase customer retention, bring in new patients, and inspire lengthy online reviews. Because fancy amenities aren’t yet standard, they can make a big impression on patients, some of whom will turn around and post on social media about their experiences with aromatherapy, lavender towels, paraffin wax hand treatments, watermelon detox water, and weighted blankets. It’s free marketing.
I went to a new dentist today and honestly best dental experience of my life. Everything was lavender scented including the WEIGHTED BLANKET they gave me for anxiety help. Also I got to watch Netflix in the chair.— Jillian (@OrbWitch) November 16, 2018
“I absolutely think this is a key to our success,” says Smith of Warmstone’s amenities, noting that Canada’s highly competitive dental market has made it crucial for practices to find new ways to cater to patients. Unlike practices that inherit patient lists from other dentists, Warmstone started its client base from scratch and now sees about 100 new patients a month, well above the industry standard.
Some dentists are skeptical of leaning too hard into amenities, though. Justin Rashbaum, a general and cosmetic dentist at Fashion District Dental in Manhattan, has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and QVC, and he regularly sends custom sheet cakes and business cards to companies where he has existing patients. (It’s a way of saying thank you, Rashbaum says, while drumming up new business.) But even he isn’t sold on the idea of in-office massage chairs, Netflix, and the like. Rashbaum believes that dental practices over-invest in these amenities out of fear, when patients really care about three basic things: being seen on time, the office looking clean, and not experiencing pain while they’re being treated.
“The rest is gravy,” Rashbaum says.
Want more stories from The Goods by Vox? Sign up for our newsletter here.