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. Christine Chu, a talented pediatric dentist who, along with her orthodontist husband, Dr. Howard Chu, opened a scratch practice five minutes outside Los Angeles.
Read on and get an exclusive look at how this second-generation dentist went from working alongside her parents to opening a thriving multispecialty office from the ground up in one of the most competitive areas in the country—and an area hard hit by the pandemic.
Name and credentials:
Christine Chu, DDS
• Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry, University of Southern California
• Pediatric dental residency
Fresh Orthodontics & Pediatric Dentistry
2,622 square feet;
4 open bays, 2 treatment rooms
2 front office; 2 clinical staff
Dentistry runs in your family!
Give us a snapshot of their ties and history to the profession—and what got you into it, too.
It’s true—there are a lot of dentists in my family! My mother and my father are general dentists, my brother is a periodontist, and my husband is an orthodontist. You can imagine how much “teeth talk” occurs during family meals. (An uncle and a few cousins are in dentistry, too.) My parents really wanted me to follow in their footsteps—and luckily, I truly love dentistry and am happy to continue the legacy. I appreciate the work–life balance that dentistry affords while also being able to make an impact in the lives of my pediatric population.
How did you meet your husband? Give us a summary of your practice together.
My husband and I met in residency—he was across the hallway in the orthodontic department and we ended up collaborating over a difficult case. Our mutual friends kept trying to set us up and, many months later, we finally went on our first date.
I feel very fortunate to practice with my husband. We work well together and share a vision of how we want our office to run. We’ve found a great balance to evenly distribute the workload. We play upon our different strengths, which are quite complementary. He’s the “big picture” guy and helps to set up our goals; he focuses on marketing and manages the staff. I’m more of a “numbers” person, because I like to monitor our financials, run reports, etc.
How has COVID-19 affected your practice over the past few months?
It’s been a whirlwind. We closed the office from March 17 to June 1, but opened for any emergency dental cases. We took our children out of daycare and tried our best to manage both our home and office responsibilities.
We spent most of the first few weeks gathering information about the different loans available to us. After that, we started to search for PPE that seemed near-impossible to find. We retained one staff member to answer phone calls during the closure, so our patients were still able to reach us.
Returning to normal—or the “new normal”—what changes have you implemented in your office?
When patients make an appointment, they’re given verbal instruction about the changes and are also sent a summary text. Upon arrival, patients text us and a staff member goes out to take their temperature. Anyone who comes into the office is asked to wear a mask and practice social distancing. The doctors and staff are all wearing recommended PPE and sweating like crazy, but overall we feel protected. We’ve also added a hypochlorous acid fogger to further disinfect the office. We’re running at 75% of our normal schedule to handle all the new changes. So far, patients have been very understanding and everything has gone smoothly.
How was working with your parents and brother all under one practice roof? What kind of dynamics were at play?
Going into business with family definitely has its advantages. I was able to learn a lot about running a successful office and understand all aspects of the business side that you don’t learn in dental school. My mother handles the financials in the office and taught me everything I need to know about insurance utilization, copayments, balancing the books, etc. My father handles HR and taught me state labor laws and issues that may arise with staffing. My brother is great with technology and was able to add new services to improve the office efficiency. The office is a fairly large, high volume, multi-specialty practice with additional associates as well. Therefore it helped to divide up all the tasks necessary to run a busy practice. Howard joined the practice immediately after he graduated from residency. We were already offering orthodontics in the office, so Howard took over the orthodontic department and helped grow that portion of the office. In the end, Howard and I decided on opening our own office since we wanted a practice limited to our specialties. I felt guilty since my parents were grooming me to take over their practice, but they 100% supported my decision and told me to “go chase your own dream.” I’m very grateful for their support.
A lot of work, planning and execution went into building
your office from the ground up. Walk us through that process.
We worked with a team at Joe Architect, who helped our vision become a reality. The floor plan was the most challenging aspect, because we needed to accommodate both his and my specialties. Once the floor plan was completed, we collaborated to include aesthetic elements we liked into the design. Jimmy Poucher of Velocity Design Builders was our contractor and helped tremendously to ensure that the process was as seamless as possible.
What were the most important
design-related elements of your practice, and why?
Kid- and adult-friendly: Our goal was to create something that was suitable for—and interesting to—both children and adults. We needed the space to create a sense of fun and excitement that transcends a person’s age. We did so by adding bright colors and very visually striking lines and angles.
Inviting: The office has a very open feel, with floor-to-ceiling windows running across the reception area and open bay. The idea was to create something that didn’t feel like a dental office; instead, it’s the kind of feeling you get when you enter a very cool museum. A recent new patient commented, “I never knew a dental office could be trendy!” That’s the impression we wanted to create.
Efficient: The flow of the office was really important to us. We created multiple floor plans and traced the steps of the patients. What is the flow for a new patient? What is the flow for an orthodontic adjustment? What is the flow for a recall patient? We aimed to create a layout that would meet both our needs and eliminate areas of congestion.
What advice would you give dentists looking to build or remodel?
I think the biggest fear is the unknown. From finding a location to getting a loan, figuring out your budget, finding a contractor, and even purchasing equipment, there are so many components of starting a practice.
With my husband by my side, though, I felt like I always had a teammate in the process. We could share the stress and burden of making all those countless decisions.
Looking back, it was definitely the right decision. Talking with colleagues who’ve also started their own practices, everyone says the same thing: “I wish I’d done it sooner.”
Dentists looking to build a practice should believe in themselves and also look for support from colleagues. Dentaltown has so many great resources and forums available to connect with others who’ve gone through the process. The help is out there, and it’s easy to find!
As a pediatric dentist, what do you wish more general dentists would realize about treating children?
My approach is to always act with patience, kindness and empathy. If a child is scared, don’t get frustrated; instead, try to understand where the fear comes from and help them overcome it. Don’t allow the fear to overtake the appointment. Even the most basic behavior management techniques such as tell–show–do can be very effective in winning over an apprehensive child.
Sometimes I get referrals from general dentists for treatment on a perfectly cooperative 6-year-old. I get so surprised, because I feel like many of these kids would do just fine with the referrer. I think children can often be much more easily treated than adults.
You said that you love recalls!
Tell us about your system—why is this a favorite part of your day, and what have you done to make it better for you and your team?
Recalls are my time to engage with the parent and the child. It’s my time to educate, bond with and really set up the child for a positive relationship with the dentist. I do a lot of the hygiene myself because we’re a new startup, and I think the parents appreciate the extra time I spend with them.
We're seeing more orthodontist–pediatric dentist partnerships in the industry. What are the mutual benefits?
Orthodontic and pediatric dental specialties have a symbiotic relationship. Most of my patients eventually become my husband’s patients—and even the parents of my patients are seeking orthodontic care.On the flip side, many orthodontic patients who don’t have an established dental home choose to become my patients as well. These patients are already comfortable with the staff and the office, so it’s natural for them to want to utilize more of the services we offer.
Parents are sometimes more challenging than their children. Got any horror stories?
I can’t pinpoint the worst encounter I’ve ever had, but I would say that overall, the worst types of parents “baby” their kids too much. I’ve had a mom sit right next to her 10-year-old son during a routine checkup. She was holding his hand and patting his leg with her other hand while saying, “Oh, baby, are you doing OK? Is she hurting you?” It’s so frustrating when parents transfer their own fears onto their children.
On the flip side: Do you have
a favorite patient story?
A lot of my favorite patient stories tend to involve special-needs patients. Though working with this population may be challenging, it’s also so rewarding.
One patient with special needs was known to be combative. It was my first time seeing him and I was pregnant at the time, so I didn’t know how things would go. I surely didn’t want to get kicked or punched! He also only understood Japanese, which made communication difficult. I slowly approached him and sat on the bench next to him, trying to see what he was watching on his phone. For some reason, he thought I was a celebrity YouTuber and instantly felt comfortable with me. The appointment ended with no tears and multiple selfies. These small victories make my profession so much fun.
What advancements in dentistry are you most excited about?
Laser dentistry. I have yet to bite the bullet and buy one of those fancy lasers, but I’m starting to focus a lot of my CE in this direction. It’s amazing what lasers can do! I’m also interested in tethered oral tissues and sleep/airway issues. Pediatric dentists should be part of the team evaluating and treating children for these issues.
You specialize in helping anxious patients. What’s the secret?
I think many general dentists possess the qualities and traits to work with children. What has worked for me is to slow down and find the root of a child’s fear. If you can find out why they’re scared, you can teach them how to overcome that fear. As you guide them, you are also gaining their trust.
Of course there will be times when no trick up your sleeve works. Sedation dentistry is a great adjunct to treat these patients. I offer both oral conscious sedation and general anesthesia to my patients. I think what’s critical is to make sure you are properly trained to provide these services and know how to handle an emergency if one should arise.
Tell us about your team, your vision and where you hope to see your practice in the next 10 years.
I feel like staffing is usually everyone’s top stress, but I’ve been lucky with my team! Each person was carefully chosen to fit into our office culture and represent the office vision. They all understand that we each play a role that allows the office to run smoothly. Our staff is integral to our success, so we make sure to treat them with kindness and respect.
Over the next 10 years, I hope we become a more established practice in our area because we truly love the city we’re in! We can’t wait to be able to serve more of our community.
Tell us about your family and
how you balance work and life.
We have two boys, a 3-year-old and an 8-month-old. It’s a crazy life, but I’m lucky to live five minutes away from the office. In Los Angeles, that commute is living the dream! Saving time from commuting allows me to spend a lot more time with my children, especially during these early years where bonding is critical. My husband and I have built our office on the idea that family will always come first.
another Fresh take?
We’re running a two-for-one special!
Our Q&A with Dr. Howard Chu, Dr.?Christine Chu’s husband and her partner in Fresh Orthodontics & Pediatric Dentistry, is the cover story in this month’s issue of our sister publication Orthotown magazine, which goes exclusively to licensed orthodontists. That issue is scheduled to go live Sept. 9 at orthotown.com/magazine.