A small-practice owner with a large heart
Dentists spend most of their working hours in their practices, so they usually don’t get many opportunities to see what it’s like inside another doctor’s office. Dentaltown magazine’s recurring Office Visit profile offers a chance for Townies to meet their peers, hear their stories and get a sense of their practice protocols.
In this issue, we introduce Dr. Claudia Le, who was selected in a drawing from all the Townies who cast votes in the 2019 Townie Choice Awards. In addition to appearing on the cover of this issue, she also received a $1,000 prize from Dentaltown magazine.
Le, who practices in South San Diego, not far from Tijuana, Mexico, has benefited greatly from the advice her fellow Townies post on the message boards and credits Dentaltown for helping her build her practice of four years. Read on to see how she connects with her diverse patient pool and makes unique connections with each patient.
Name and credentials:
Dr. Claudia Le
Tufts University School of
Southland Plaza Dental,
1,200 square feet
What inspired you to get into dentistry?
My earliest memory of the dentist was when I was 4 years old: I stood at the foot of the dental chair as my mother tried to calm my wailing younger sister while the dentist worked quickly to cement the entire front row of her teeth with stainless steel crowns. The trauma would continue on throughout our childhood, with my sister refusing to smile or laugh because she was too self-conscious of her silver-colored teeth. Eventually, her baby teeth fell out and her permanent teeth grew in, but my sister still struggles with self-esteem and depression.
My journey toward dentistry was not apparent; I majored in computer science in college and after graduating I spent five years working at a software company. However, at the end of the day, there was a missing sense of purpose at my computer job. I grew increasingly interested in the dental field and its ability to help people—not only in managing oral diseases, but also in improving self-confidence. After careful consideration, I decided to pursue a more fulfilling career in dentistry. While working on my postbaccalaureate, I got a part-time job as a front desk employee and assistant for a small dental office with a wonderful dentist and mentor. It was then that I fully understood the unique healing and transformative powers of dentistry and what it means to be a tooth healer. This gave me hope that anyone, including my sister, could smile again.
Your practice, Southland Plaza Dental, is in South San Diego, about 8 miles from the Mexico border. How do you deal with patients seeking low-cost dental care in Tijuana?
I’m a big believer that people should get the best care that they are comfortable with. My patients often discover that if other offices are cutting corners, it will end up costing them more in the long run. I try not to be judgmental or overly disparaging of our Mexican counterparts, and that really leaves the door open for patients to come back to Southland Plaza Dental.
I also allow good-standing patients to make payments on treatment. Growing up, I helped my parents at their convenience store, and we would let regular customers who were having a little financial trouble keep an open tab, and they in turn would choose to shop with us instead of the cheaper big-box stores. It really is a symbiotic relationship where the community is looking out for one another.
Another way I try to coexist with Mexican offices is by being accessible for second opinions or consultations. It’s very easy to book consults in the overflow chair and spend some time between other patients. This generates so much goodwill that patients will ask if their elderly parent or adult children, some of whom have no dental insurance, can come for examination. Sometimes these visits lead to full-fee treatment despite lower-cost options in Mexico.
1. ViscoStat Clear (Ultradent). I wouldn’t be able to take any clean impressions without this. I use it on both anterior and posterior teeth, say a little prayer to the patron saint of dentistry, and voilà!
2. Harmony Posterior Dual Arch Tray (Ho Dental). My lab technician introduced me to these. I love that they are sturdy like the Clinician’s Choice trays and small enough to avoid gag reflexes and maxillary tuberosities. If it helps my lab do better work, then so be it.
3. Durelon Carboxylate Cement (3M). The fluoride release, desensitizer and adhesive properties make this “oldie but goodie” a triple threat. I use it to cement temporaries, for direct and indirect pulp capping and as an additional liner/adhesive for deep Class V glass ionomer restorations.
4. Dentrix Practice Management Software (Henry Schein). Specifically, the “Patient Report By” filters. During school vacations, I generate a list of children who are overdue on recare or treatment because it’s the perfect time to schedule a dental appointment for them. Toward the end of the year, I inform patients with pending treatment that they still have remaining insurance benefits, especially if they’ve already met their deductible.
5. Yeoman Loupes (Designs for Vision). These are built like a tank, so no cracking of the frames or popping of lenses. My brother-in-law, who is a vascular surgeon, also wears them.
As a fan of Dentaltown, can you tell us what you like most about the community and how it’s helped you practice?
As Dr. Howard Farran says, “With Dentaltown, no dentist will ever have to practice solo again.” Chances are, if you have more than 3,000 posts on the message boards, I know who you are, and I thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.
When I was looking to purchase a practice, I read many threads on practice transitions. It helped me understand the sequence and timeline of events, figure out what numbers to look for when evaluating a practice, and know the do’s and don’ts during the actual transition. I just recently switched merchant processing services, and one of the competing vendors I talked to was completely taken aback by the level of detail I got into with them—this is all thanks to Dentaltown!
When my father-in-law broke his old dentures, I used Dr. Cory Glenn’s “Let’s make a denture…” steps with fantastic results. I see my in-laws every week for family dinner night, and my father-in-law is eating and laughing with no issues. That makes my heart smile. A great lab technician for removables also helps, by the way.
I tried to follow some of the new dental Facebook groups, and it’s hard because everyone wants to talk instead of just listen. Often, it’s difficult to shift through reliable advice versus anecdotal thoughts or strong opinions. I prefer Dentaltown because I know who the experts are, and the search function works much better when I’m researching a particular question or issue.
You said that you like that the practice has a “small-town feel.” What helps create such an atmosphere? And how does that affect how you treat patients?
My practice has been here for 40 years. Some of my patients, their kids, and now grandkids have been coming here since the beginning. My staff and I make it a point to get to know all of our patients. Throughout the year, they will bring in garden harvests, souvenirs from their summer vacations and holiday cards with homemade jams. My patients have my number, they text me pictures of their home renovations and invite me to community events. And, yes, once in a while, there is a fuzzy picture of a chipped tooth. These connections cue us to do certain things, like to pad the schedule for certain patients. Some of our veterans have PTSD and are extremely anxious. Giving extra time during treatment goes a long way in making them feel reassured and comfortable.
Recently, my hygienist asked if she could temporarily leave an hour early on Fridays to pick up her kids; her family schedule changed and there was no other way for her to accommodate that change. I told her it was no problem. It’s important that not only our patients but also our staff feels comfortable and connected.
We have a candy bowl by the checkout counter that everyone crowds around, including our own Speedy Delivery Mr. McFeely. My front desk tells everyone it’s “job security,” but it’s really because while we do serious work, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. There are other things in life besides teeth.
Given its proximity to Mexico and the San Diego Naval Base, South San Diego has a very diverse patient pool. How do you ensure the practice appeals to patients from different backgrounds? And how does that affect how you market to new patients?
My patients are mainly retired or active military and their families from the neighboring communities of Coronado, Imperial Beach and South Bay San Diego. It really helps when my staff and I are from diverse backgrounds ourselves and reflect the society we live in. I’ve moved through different schools and jobs, and each time I encountered diverse groups of people. I’ve been offered halva, kaju katli, pão de queijo, lumpia and tamales so, yes, I’ve broken bread and forged friendships with patients of every major race and socioeconomic class and those with different beliefs.
A certain degree of emotional intelligence is also required. I know that if my patient is answering work emails on the phone, he or she wants to be in and out quickly. If she just had a baby, she wants to relax or sleep in the chair. If they’re retired, they want to chat about anything and everything under the sun. By understanding my patients’ needs without them explicitly verbalizing it, I can create a pleasant experience. As a result, most of my new patients are by word-of-mouth referrals.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy! I’ve instructed my staff that a patient can specifically request to watch the news during treatment, but as soon as they leave, we must change the channel back to HGTV or Food Network.
You opened your practice four years ago so, relatively speaking, you’re still in the beginning stages of ownership. What were some problems you experienced, and how did you end up addressing them?
From something as basic as switching out a faulty air/water syringe to something more complex like auditing the data in my practice management software, I’ve come across and solved so many problems. But essentially, I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. If I have an issue, it’s likely that another dentist has been through it before, whether it’s removing a stripped implant screw or upgrading to Windows 10. I have so many bookmarked Dentaltown posts, CDA journal articles and American Dental Accessories blogs for later, I’m not even sure if I’ll ever get to them all. My desk at home and work is organized chaos. But I love that the information and knowledge is all there!
For the sake of readers who might be thinking about opening their own practices: What’s something you wish you’d known about practice ownership before you started out? And any other advice?
If practice ownership is one of your goals, don’t wait. A lot of colleagues who are thinking of owning a practice have expressed that they’re afraid to take the leap, citing that they need more experience. After a year or two, you’re more than qualified. As I’ve referenced before, the information and support is all out there. Also, don’t underestimate a practice transition when considering it against a startup.
• OptiBond Solo Plus (Kerr)
• OptiBond XTR (Kerr)
•Midwest Tradition (Dentsply)
• Triodent V3 rings (Ultradent)
• Filtek Supreme and P60 (3M)
•Exafast NDS (GC America)
• FujiCem (GC America)
• NX3 Universal (Kerr)
•Dentrix Dental (Schein)
What’s an average day like at your practice?
I create an environment where my staff and I can do our best work. We run one column of hygiene, one column of treatment, and one for emergencies, consults, try-ins and deliveries. Insurance is verified, appointments are confirmed, and copays are calculated before the patient’s arrival so there are no surprises. I review the schedule the day before to prepare for each patient and their unique case. I check to make sure if anyone needs to be premedicated, if anyone is on blood thinners and if their blood pressure is typically controlled. I let my assistant know if I anticipate a pulp cap, extra time for hemostasis or updated radiographs.
When patients are comfortable, no sedation is needed. I talk to them and it helps me assess their anxiety level and lighten it if necessary. If the patient is a divorcée or widow, I’ll ask if they have a boyfriend yet. (Typical answer: “No, because they’re only interested in a nurse or your purse!”) If the patient is married, I ask how they met their spouse. (One of my favorite answers: “My older sister brought him home but she didn’t care too much for him, so I took him.”) And if they have any visible tattoos, I ask the significance. (Most memorable answer: “It’s the name of my ex-girlfriend, and below it is the name of the baby I thought was mine.”) Every person is a different book or story, and it helps me personalize my health care delivery to match.
Afterward, all relevant findings and conversations are thoroughly documented in the case notes. Depending on the procedure, follow-up care calls are made to ensure patients are comfortable. I will also do random quality-control audits, such as check that instruments are properly sterilized and stored, dental products are still within expiration dates, or that scheduled maintenance and testing has been performed on the dental equipment and lines. I can do this because I keep my practice purposely manageable. There are no extra staff, excess inventory or extraneous equipment to mess with.
What’s your favorite patient story?
My patient was going through cancer treatment and she wanted her teeth ready for her upcoming big birthday bash. Like most patients, she didn’t particularly enjoy getting dental work done, so I did my best to keep her distracted from the procedure, her battle with cancer and other negativity going on in her life. I made sure everything was done on time. She went on to have a wonderful birthday, finish cancer treatment and even adopted a terrier mix dog. On the follow-up visit, she sheepishly pulled a $100 bill out of her pocket and threw it on the bracket table as she was leaving. I hollered after her, “Did you just tip your dentist?!”
What are you looking forward to? What excites you right now in dentistry?
Lately, I’ve been volunteering to take on dental assisting externs from the local assisting school. It’s not easy, because they’re slow and still learning, but I enjoy teaching and explaining the “why” behind each step in the procedures—for example, why I need a wedge for a Class II restoration but not for a buildup. To new assistants, these seem like the same procedure, but by understanding the difference, it helps them be better at their job. I also mentor a couple of UCSD pre-dental students who shadow me. I had great mentors, and this is my way of passing it on. Part of dentistry is apprenticeship, so it’s important to maintain this tradition for the next generation. Actually, when I’m teaching in the operatory, I find that patients really get a newfound appreciation for what dentists do!
What’s something you’d like to see dentistry do differently as a profession within the next 10–15 years?
Dentistry has changed a lot in the past decade. Now with the increase in dental education costs, the rise of the DSOs, new consumer interests in teledentistry and advancements in digital dentistry, the next 10–15 years will definitely be interesting. As a solo practitioner, I’d like to see dental colleagues support each other and band together through these changes. That’s why I love Dentaltown. I’m also impressed with the California Dental Association and the San Diego County Dental Society; the support and services they provide are phenomenal. I think it also helps that we have a large membership. If you can afford to, please consider supporting and being an active part of a dental association.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? What keeps you occupied outside of dentistry?
I enjoy following sports—I got that from living in Boston for 20 years. While baseball and football will keep me occupied for the whole year, I’ll also watch playoff sports, tennis, soccer, the Olympic Games and March Madness, when I have a bracket going. I used to storm-watch, too, but they don’t do that much here in San Diego. I went to the World Series game last year, which was a fun bucket-list item.
I started practicing yoga more regularly six months ago. The combination of strength, balance and flexibility is great for dentists. Part of dentistry is physical labor, so it doesn’t make any sense to load up on continuing education to improve your mind but do nothing to maintain your body.
Living in San Diego, we have beautiful weather year-round. I have an outdoor herb garden that started small with basil and tomatoes, but keeps growing. Now I have Thai chili, lemongrass, sorrel, stevia and a lime tree. There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from growing some of your own food, free of pesticides and preservatives.