The Worst Dental Office Ever!

Sept. 30, 2009
When was the last time you walked in the front door of your office, looked at the paperwork your team is handing out, sat in a dental chair, and generally looked at things from your clients' perspective?

by Benjamin G. Burris, DDS, MDS

One of my favorite things about my job is that I get to go and visit hundreds of dental offices. I love the whole experience. Seeing the buildings, talking to the staff, catching up with the doctors … everything about it is fun and interesting! I would also contend that having been in so many offices gives me a unique perspective on dental offices as a whole. I would say I notice things that others do not, and I thought it would be interesting to write an article on the worst office I every visited.

What I'm talking about here is a composite of all the things I’ve noticed over the years — and continue to notice — and what it would be like if all of them were to occur in the same office at the same time (from a new patient’s perspective). I’m sure it doesn’t happen in your dental office, but really, when was the last time you walked in the front door, looked at the paperwork your team is handing out, sat in a dental chair, and generally looked at things from the perspective of your clients?

As I searched for the office of Dr. X at 22 Main Street (which I had never visited before), I knew it was close because I looked it up on Google on my phone. I kept driving around in wider and wider circles, turning at the end of the block and retracing my path down Main Street until finally I saw the address of 20 Main Street on a mailbox and knew that Dr. X was next door.

The location was not where it said it was on Google (something that you can have Google fix), and there was no sign or address number visible because the shrubs had grown over the sign. But after much determination, I found it.

I walked into the reception area and was hit by a musty odor of dust and mildew. The office had once been nicely appointed — during the Nixon Administration — and the walls were in desperate need of painting and repapering. The upholstery on the chairs was severely worn. They didn't match the color of the ceiling tiles that were stained from the leak that Dr. X didn’t know about because he had last been in the reception area in the mid '80s. The magazines were new … at least relative to the wallpaper and the dust on the lampshades, but not much else.

I walked up to the reception counter which had sliding glass windows firmly shut to keep out those pesky patients. I proceeded to see who would give up first — me or the lady behind the desk eating her lunch and obviously on a personal phone call while giving me “the finger”. No, not that finger. I’m talking about the index finger held straight up, palm towards me signifying that I needed to wait until she was finished with her pizza or her personal phone call (I’m not sure which). Of course, I only got the finger after she ignored me so long that she thought I’d surely go away or at least sit down!

Finally, the glass window was cracked an inch or two and I was gruffly asked, “Can I help you?” I indicated that I was there for a new patient visit with Dr. X and was told, “Just a minute,” as the window slammed shut again. The lady returned a minute later, opened the glass windows, slammed a clipboard with paperwork on it on the counter (but no pen) and told me, “Have a seat and fill this out,. We will be with you in a minute.”

As the window closed, I tried to ask where the restroom was and was greeted with “the finger” again. but this time it was horizontal and pointing to the door to my right. I found the bathroom and was in awe of the amount of staining and rust scale that was on the sink and the toilet. There was no toilet paper, the garbage can was overflowing, and the floor was wet. What a first impression for a health-care facility!

After filling out the paperwork that had been photocopied so many thousands of time that you could hardly read it and which was printed on an angle on the paper, I sat and waited. I wondered if the medical history questionnaire had been updated to ask about all the new drugs and issues that have arisen in medicine in the last 20 years. Though I was not told to do so, I took my paperwork to the front desk when I was finished and was told she needed my insurance cards, which I just happened to have. She photocopied it and I resumed the sitting ritual.

Some 45 minutes after my appointed time, another woman opened the door (the one I had to go though to access the restroom) and shouted my name, though the waiting room was not that big (and I bet I was the only new patient in the room, so it should not have been too hard to pick me out from the regular patients). I assumed she wanted me to follow her and was apparently correct, since she turned her back and started walking away once I rose and moved towards her. She showed me to a cubicle with a dental chair, motioned for me to sit down, and said, “Dr. X will be with you shortly.” "Shortly" meant another 30 minutes of waiting, but this was good because I had the chance to observe my surroundings and get a feel for the office.

Off to my right on the wall was a red box with a clear plastic top and a hole in it. A biohazard sticker was on the box Needles (used, I assume) overflowed in a pile that protruded out of the hole on the top of box. I looked at the counterop to my right,and I saw paperwork, gloves, tongue depressors, needles, bottles, and containers scattered in a mess. Multiple family photos, kids' drawings, and letters were stuck to the wall above the countertop, and the overall effect was unnerving. There were several brown spots that looked like they had been sprayed or splattered on the wall and cabinet. Thhey were not large spots, but big enough to be seen. Given the amount of time I had to wait in the chair, I finally decided that these spots must be blood! Didn't they clean these rooms before they put someone new in them?

Well, you get the picture! Every one of these things I mentioned I have personally witnessed in a dental office on more than one occasion. It is amazing what we get accustomed to and how entropy can take over if we are not actively observing our environment and stressing to our team the proper way to act and maintain our surroundings.

I also regularly visit offices that make a concerted effort to make a positive and powerful first impression on their patients by having clean and comfortable surroundings, as well as providing stellar customer service. It is amazing how much difference a positive attitude and a grateful mindset can make. Grateful for what, you ask? Grateful for the opportunity to have such a great job in a great profession and to have people walking in the door trusting you and your team with their dental health.

Attitude is the foundation and the office ambiance grows from there. You do not have to spend a fortune to have a nice and clean office. Little things done consistently over time can make a huge, cumulative impact. Look up your office on the Internet. Drive by your office and notice how visible your sign, address, and phone number are. Drive up to the front of the office now and again. Get out and walk in the front door, have a seat in the reception area, use the patient restroom, and generally try to imagine you are a new patient walking into your office for the first time. You will be amazed by what you see! Your team members can do the same thing. You can even send in a “secret shopper” to make phone calls as well as visit in person to test your customer service level.

I guess the "take-home point" from this discussion of “the worst dental office” is that patients can get their teeth fixed anywhere. They do not know how good your dentistry is. They are not interested in your margins or the wonderful technology you use to obtain the great clinical results you get. Patients judge your dentistry by how your office comes across on the first impression. That is all they know and can compare from one office to another.

Do yourself a favor and do the small things that can help you put your best foot forward, so that you will be in a position to provide the dentistry you do so well. As dentists, we all tend to focus on the technical aspects of our career and let some of the business and customer service issues take care of themselves. Unfortunately, without oversight, the dental office environment will devolve into chaos and ultimately inhibit our ability to do the dentistry we love to do.

Dr. Benjamin G. Burris is an orthodontist practicing in northeast and central Arkansas. He is a Fellow of the AAO, and member of the ADA and the Schulman Study Group. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his Web site at