For many people, a visit to the dentist is no reason to smile.
According to a 2009 Dental Health Survey, one in 10 adults suffers from dental phobia — a condition that causes anxiety when faced with a dental visit. It is not uncommon for a dental phobic to avoid the dentist for decades, resulting in tooth decay, gum disease and a whole other bevy of preventable complications.
But one Tulsa dentist is on a mission to address that phobia by providing the tools and atmosphere to help alleviate fears and promote oral health for an often-overlooked segment of society.
Dr. Miriam Hanna, who has practiced dentistry for nine years, said she has seen it all when it comes to the extremes that people go to avoid the dental chair.
“I’ve seen people try to pull out their own teeth with a pair of pliers — and not just because this is Oklahoma,” she said. “I’ve practiced all over and have seen it happen everywhere. People will take matters into their own hands just to avoid coming to the dentist.”
So when Hanna opened Tulsa Modern Dental at 3345 S. Harvard Ave. last year, she set out to create an experience that would turn “old school” dentistry on its head and reshape the way people think about the dentist.
“Our biggest thing is that we want people to be comfortable,” she said. “If they are comfortable, they’ll be patients for life.”
Hanna employs different forms of numbing and relaxing agents to put patients at ease. Catalysts range from a specially mixed topical gel to anti-anxiety medication and even sedation for the most extreme of cases.
Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, is the preferred method among patients and what Hanna uses the most to “take the edge off.”
“(Nitrous oxide) has been the biggest thing that helps patients relax,” she said. “It is the most minimally invasive because they can still drive themselves home after a dental appointment.”
Hanna said that allowing time for the nitrous and/or topical gel to set in before performing a procedure is crucial.
“I think our biggest thing is that we don’t rush people,” she said. “We don’t put in some gel and then two seconds later stick them with a needle, come in, drill and then leave. We really leave enough time in the schedule for letting that topical gel or nitrous set in.
“They’ll suck up nitrous five minutes before I even walk into the room, which obviously uses up more nitrous and is a little more expensive (for us), but if it takes the edge off and makes people comfortable, I am happy to do it.”
Since a leading complaint among the patients she polled was the loud noise of the equipment, Hanna uses an electric hand piece that makes a lot less noise than the traditional air hand piece commonly used by dentists.
Even the office itself is a departure from the norm with its spacious rooms and modern décor. Memory foam chairs and walls painted in soothing colors contribute to the calming atmosphere.
“Nothing about this office — other than the equipment in my hand — looks or feels like a dental office,” Hanna said. “We did a consult room in all glass and we have lucite chairs to give it a modern look where it feels like you are walking into a salon rather than a dental office.”
Though Tulsa Modern Dental has been opened for less than a year, Hanna has already built up a sizeable following thanks to word of mouth.
“We get two to three referrals a week from patients who refer customers, co-workers or family members,” Hanna said. “So we live off of referrals. That has really been our biggest practice builder.”
One patient lives in San Francisco and sets up her appointments around the holidays whenever she visits family in Tulsa. She had previously avoided the dentist until giving Tulsa Modern Dental a shot.
“We just want people to give it a try and see for themselves how, dare I say, enjoyable a dental visit can be,” said Hanna. “It’s not the same old thing that they are used to from when they were little. We try to take everything that people complain about at the dentist and turn it around.”