For his second practice, this Townie
partnered with the company behind
a global icon: Hello Kitty & Friends
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’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. Eric To’s one-of-a-kind office in Temple City, California, for which the Townie secured a U.S.-exclusive partnership with one of the most popular brands in the world. His practice, which prominently features the characters from Hello Kitty & Friends, brings in patients of all ages.
Check out this doc’s story to learn about his partnering with a global icon, winning design awards, managing more than 60 employees, growing multiple offices and still finding the time to love the art of cosmetic dentistry.
Name and credentials:
Eric To, DDS
Columbia University School of Dental and Oral Surgery, 2003
Parklane Dental, Temple City and Arcadia, California,
Temple City: 12 operatories
Arcadia: 9 operatories
60+, including six associates and 13 hygienists
Let’s get right into what most readers will be most curious about: You partnered with Sanrio to design a practice that features one of the world’s most popular brands. How did this all come together?
Three years ago, when I first started designing this new office, my goal was to have a unique, one-of-a-kind design. Around the same time, my 5-year-old daughter developed a severe lung infection and was in a hospital intensive care unit for a week. She was very scared, so my wife brought all her favorite Hello Kitty plush toys to accompany her during those tough days.
We truly believe that the comfort that our daughter received from Hello Kitty helped her fight the disease; her condition subsequently improved very quickly. When she finally came home, my wife and I were thinking that if we could bring Hello Kitty to our daughter when she was nervous and scared, why couldn’t we bring Hello Kitty to our dental patients?
When we presented the idea to Sanrio, the company was touched by my daughter’s experience. It was also excited, because this would be the first time Sanrio had worked with a dentist for a crossover partnership project.
How have patients reacted to the practice’s unique design?
When we opened in March 2019, we had a wait list for Fridays and Saturdays. We have many new patients who travel from different parts of the country to have this Sanrio Friends experience—and not just children! We have many adult patients who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s who are still massive fans of Hello Kitty. When they come to our office, they wear Hello Kitty outfits from head to toe. It is phenomenal.
You’re no stranger to great design; your practice in Arcadia won the ADA Dental Office Design of the Year competition. Did you carry over any elements to this new office, or did you start with a clean slate?
I started my Arcadia practice in 2009 as a five-operatory office, and five years later we acquired the suite next door and rebuilt it into a nine-operatory office. The next year, we entered the ADA competition and out of 45 entries from around the country, we were selected as the winner in the small practice category. The winning elements were a combination of design aesthetics, functional efficiency and the use of high-tech equipment. We worked with the same architect in the Temple City office, along with the art team from Sanrio, to collaborate the design and incorporate the same award-winning concepts.
How has your marketing approach changed since you’ve received such publicity from local and national news?
With my first practice 10 years ago, it was mainly with direct mail, local newspapers, magazines and the Yellow Pages. Within a couple of years, social media had taken over as the focus of our marketing strategy. In addition to internal patient referrals, Google and Yelp have become our main sources of referrals. Facebook and Instagram have also become a huge part of our marketing channels, allowing us to reach out to more people not limited by geographic boundaries.
What led you into dentistry? Who has inspired you in your career?
Dentistry had been my top career choice ever since I was in high school. I like that it allows me to use my hand skills to help others achieve better oral health and make a difference in their lives. It’s also a profession that allows me to own my business, so I can set my career and business goals. The owner–dentist of my first associateship position, Dr. Jonathan Won, taught me a lot about the technical and business part of dentistry when I first came out from school. Dr. Gordon Christensen is another dentist who’s inspired me. I’ve been to many of his continuing education courses to advance my knowledge and skills in this field.
You have a passion for cosmetic procedures. What about this aspect of dentistry continues to hold your attention?
Today, cosmetic dentistry is involved with everything we do daily. From a simple one-surface composite filling to an advanced case of full-mouth rehabilitation, the principles of aesthetic dentistry are being followed every time we perform a procedure. My passion in this field comes from the satisfaction I get when I see the positive changes my dentistry makes on my patients’ lives. This satisfaction is also what drives me to improve my skills continually, so the outcome of every case is highly predictable.
What advice would you give to GPs who are looking to get into more cosmetic treatments?
Take many continuing education courses to learn different approaches from different clinicians. Remember that there’s not just one way of approaching these cases—find the one that fits the way your practice runs. Be patient. Not all patients will accept large treatment plans the first day they meet you; it might take a few years and many small restorative procedures for them to gain your trust. It may not be a bad idea to start your first case on a trusted family member. From my experience, they are the best patients.
You’ve got a huge team. As the practice owner, what’s your approach for keeping things running smoothly?
Be personally involved with all decisions of the operation. We have each office divided into different departments: front office, back office, insurance and administrative. Each has its own supervisor, who reports to an office manager; the office managers report to me and my wife, who is the general manager of the entire practice. Each week, I hold individual meetings with the office managers and supervisors to ensure I’m fully informed about all matters related to patient care, associate doctors’ performance and production numbers. I also spend time to listen and try to resolve any concerns that may arise involving their work.
What piece of business advice have you picked up that you think docs should remember?
Every dentist should surround himself or herself with a good team of professionals, including a trusted dental equipment and supplies company; a high-quality lab that is consistent with its delivery dates; a fast-response information technology company that can help troubleshoot computer problems; and a great insurance agent who can help with all sorts of insurance matters, such as professional and property liability, health insurance for employees, etc. I also work closely with my corporate attorney, who’s one phone call away to help with questions about hiring, firing and updates on labor law. My CPA is another important professional I work with to help me resolve any issues related to payroll, tax laws and human resources.
What’s something that remains a challenge to you? And what’s something you’ve mastered over the years that you think other dentists could master as well?
The most challenging aspect of running a dental practice is creating an atmosphere where employees can work harmoniously. Personality clashes between employees happen quite often. As a practice owner, I must create protocols to help resolve issues among employees, such as providing them a neutral witness (e.g., their direct supervisor or me) as an arbitrator to settle their differences.
On the plus side, every year we organize employees bonding activities such as holiday parties, anniversary field trips and Halloween costume contests to give employees a chance to know one another in a non-work-related environment. These activities provide great opportunities to build team spirit.
What’s your favorite patient story?
My first full-mouth rehabilitation case was about eight years ago—after going through a terrible divorce, a patient in her 50s wanted to beautify her smile, which she’d been ashamed of for many years. She had very dark tetracycline stains and bad ortho relapse.
I spent a total of five visits, including consultation, to finish her case: e.Max crowns on teeth #3–4, 13–15, 18–20 and 29–30, and e.Max veneers on teeth #6–11 and #22–27. I still remember the moment when she picked up the mirror and looked at her teeth after I cemented her last veneer—tears burst out from her eyes and she gave me a big hug.
The patient later moved back to China to pursue a business career, but came back two years ago to visit me. She was so appreciative for what I’d done for her, and that to me was the greatest satisfaction—to know that my work made an enormously positive difference in another person’s life.
When you’re not practicing, how do you like to spend your time?
Besides being a dentist and a practice owner, I’m also a husband and a father of a 12-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl. I love spending time being with my family. I love to attend my son’s orchestra performances and his soccer games on the weekends. I also love to attend my daughter’s ballet and Latin dance competitions. I love to go to the movies with them and take them on vacation as well. Our recent trip to Disney World in Orlando was a blast!