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Office Visit: Dr. Catharine Song by Kyle Patton, associate editor

Office Visit: Dr. Catharine Song 
by Kyle Patton, associate editor
photography by Christina Gandolfo

Dentists spend most of their working hours inside their own 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 how they practice.

Her first love was art. Then architecture. She scrutinized the aesthetics of masterpieces while in Italy and practiced the process of planning and creation while working in architectural firms back in the United States. But it wasn’t meant to be: As she puts it, Dr. Catharine Song faced a quarter-life crisis after both passions turned into pastimes. After a period of uncertainty, she cold-called the dental school nearest to her residence in North Carolina and soon found herself in love with a profession that gave her the chance to be both artist and architect while improving the lives of patients.

After several years as an associate where she quietly garnered skills and cherrypicked wisdom from her mentors, Song opened a small but mighty practice in the heart of Beverly Hills, California. Now she spends each day pairing her artistic eye with a clinician’s knowledge to make a name for herself as a cosmetic dentist in a city famous for its obsession with beauty and perfection.

In our Q&A, we hear from Song about what it takes to thrive in such a competitive market, how her art background leads to better patient outcomes, which skills are paramount for practice success and more.



Office Highlights

Name:
Dr. Catharine Song

Graduated from:
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Adams School of Dentistry

Practice:
Song Cosmetic Dentistry, Beverly Hills, California

Practice size:
800 square feet; 3 operatories

Team size:
2

You studied architecture and fine arts before transitioning into dentistry. How did that happen?

Where do I begin? It all started with me being an innate idealist and perfectionist, voyaging in the hope of finding a dream. But I was never pleased with my artwork; I was harshly critical of myself and believed no one would ever buy my work. Ironically, there was a brief period when people would appreciate my work—but when I achieved praise too easily, I didn’t feel challenged in a meaningful way.

Soon after, I fell deeply in love with architecture, a new challenge, and double-majored in architectural history and fine arts at New York University. Then I decided to become an architect: I applied to prestigious architecture grad schools and I worked at an architectural firm in Minneapolis. Several months later, I got rejected by all the architecture schools I’d applied to, and the firm I worked at revealed the realities of being an architect that made me question if architecture was the right fit for me.

That was the beginning of my quarter-life crisis. For about a year, I was jobless. On many days, I’d stare at the ceiling above my bed, not knowing what to do for the rest of my life.

Then, one day, I learned about dentistry (almost accidentally) through a family friend. The fact that dentistry requires manual dexterity (which I never get tired of and is a strength of mine), would allow me to pragmatically heal people and also allows for a flexible work schedule instantly captured my attention. Further, the fact that I could have a new challenge—taking prerequisite science courses—gave me a concrete goal to work toward.

While I was living in North Carolina, I cold-called the UNC at Chapel Hill Adams School of Dentistry, which was both prestigious and nearby. I met with an admissions director and asked questions about dentistry, career outlook and steps to get into dental school. I’ve fallen in love with dentistry ever since and the rest is history.


How has that artistic eye lent itself to dentistry?

I didn’t realize until my dental school career that I was gifted in visual arts. I tried all types of dentistry at UNC, thanks to its great, comprehensive curriculum, and I’d find myself having a blast cosmetically restoring a patient’s chipped front teeth or any form of restorative or surgical procedure that leads to an aesthetic outcome. Several mentors and instructors also encouraged me to pursue a niche in cosmetic dentistry.

One unforgettable moment at UNC was during a pediatric practical course when Dr. William Vann, a distinguished professor in pediatric dentistry, came to me with a concerned face. He asked, “Catharine, are you thinking of continuing the research path after dental school?” (At the time, I was involved in research at the periodontology department.) I replied, “I’m not sure yet why do you ask?” He told me, “You’re one of the best-skilled students I’ve seen so far. You have gifted hands and I think you should go into either cosmetic or surgery.”

My eyes are drawn to natural beauty and one of my obsessive dental hobbies is analyzing other dentists’ and ceramists’ veneer cases to figure out why one would look more natural than the other.


Your practice is in the heart of Beverly Hills. Tell us about the spot and what your experience has been like so far.

People from all around the world come to Beverly Hills to get their cosmetic work done, from a new set of veneers to Kim Kardashian buttocks! My clients are often involved in the movie industry, business owners, retired residents, a mixture of L.A. natives and others from different parts of the country and world—a very diverse group of people. And I love it, because I get to learn about their stories from all walks of life ... and they are all equally priceless. One of my clients would get whitening done before attending a movie premiere, and later he would tell me a story about meeting the royal family attending the same event while I’m treating his teeth. Another client would tell me about being a single dad entering a law school at the age of 40 after quitting being an archaeologist so he could provide a good education and opportunity to his son—and still working at age 75 as an attorney and publishing a book!

Beverly Hills is an extremely competitive market to enter as a young dentist, because it is already saturated with established celebrity dentists. If I deliver the quality service these clients are looking for—many specifically make the time and effort to fly into Beverly Hills because they believe that’s where they can get the quality work, especially in cosmetic dentistry—I’ll be in good shape.

You’re a new practice owner. What surprised you about starting and owning an office? What tips would you pass to doctors who are on the fence about opening an office?

Everyone has different experiences starting a business, but I was surprised how taking a leap of faith and jumping into owning a dental practice sped up my growth a thousandfold—as an entrepreneur, a practitioner and a human.

Every day, there were constant first-time tasks and problems that required quick and creative decision-making. I soon learned that I needed to get comfortable with being uncomfortable; I reminded myself it’s evidence that I’m evolving toward greatness.

There were days when I would feel overwhelmed and question my capability both as an entrepreneur and practitioner. I’d think, “Wow, I’m just a small business owner, and yet I’m so overwhelmed when it’s not even a big business.” I understand the reaction was coming from naivete, but it did affect me at times. Nevertheless, I’d keep going because my patients were waiting in the chair for my help.

Being a practice owner allowed me to spread my wings! It opened the whole avenue of the treatment and business scope—I was able to finally work on smile makeover projects and other challenging cases I love. Before owning a practice, I felt my clinical growth was plateauing two years into working as an associate dentist; the mundane repetition made me feel like a robot.

Practically speaking, the worst-case scenario is bankruptcy, and lenders cannot go after your personal assets. You’re forgiven for being brave! Just get back up and move forward again. The chance to succeed far outweighs the regret of never trying.


Walk us through your office. What design or aesthetic elements are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of making the small space look spacious. Also, the practice feels vintage but modern, minimalistic but homey, and trendy but timeless.

As you enter the waiting room, it feels more like a living room—you can sit on the small, modern sofa and appreciate the scent of roses while sipping a cup of Nespresso coffee. Music in the background also makes it more homelike. I enjoyed installing and decorating floating shelves with found objects such as books, a seashell, sculptural pieces, etc. I also hung a garden painting I created in Florence in the waiting room, which adds a little bit of color.

The best part of the office is the overlooking view of greenery-topped roofs with downtown Los Angeles in the distance. Abundant natural sunshine enters the rooms. I kept the existing operatory chairs and the vintage turquoise sink cabinets to give historic character to the white room.


What has been the greatest reward of your career so far? What has been the most difficult challenge?

The greatest reward has been that I get to build a lifelong relationship with the patients—patients with rich, inspiring life stories and exciting futures.

The most difficult challenge was when I needed to keep working right after I’d had surgery, because I couldn’t afford to take weeks off from my business. That’s when I experienced the challenge and cons of active income. Without me being there physically, everything stops. That’s when I realized I should start planning ways to have a passive income as well.


Before breaking off to open your own spot, you worked as an associate. What carried over from that experience to help you run a practice?

Working with various dentists as an associate, I observed the strengths in each practitioner that made their practice thrive (or at least sustain). I thought if I could successfully combine and incorporate all those strengths into my practice, I would be able to thrive—and I’ve been implementing them in my office one by one and seeing a great result so far.

I learned clinical techniques in cosmetic work such as veneers and full-mouth reconstruction cases from a talented, AACD-accredited cosmetic dentist. Another boss had a plethora of patients because of building sincere rapport with them, as well as effective marketing in local magazines and newspapers. I saw the importance of marketing—especially in a competitive market like Los Angeles—and began working with a marketing and SEO company.

Another office I worked in had a great bonus system that motivated employees to be creative in ways to produce more without overtreating. Another boss was business-savvy with a strategic system that maximized production. Through regular morning meetings, his team was on the same page in terms of where the business stood and what approach to take to achieve their monthly goals and bonus. Inspired by this, my team has intermittent short meetings throughout the day, yielding efficient and smooth business operations.

One boss was so loved by her patients they told me they came to the practice because she’s simply an amazing person to be around, and I learned that being genuine with the patients comes before anything else! She also incorporated massage services so patients could experience spa-like dental visits.

I implemented minimalism in the business operations by intentionally acquiring an existing practice that was 100% fee for service and out of network. It was scary to do so, and I received a lot of conflicting advice from people on whether I should be in or out of network. I’m glad I went with my gut. I can spend a good amount of time with each patient, collaborate with great labs and deliver quality care to my patients.


On the clinical side of things, what are a few of your favorite procedures?

The more I practice dentistry, I think about Dr. Vann’s advice and he was right: I love anything cosmetic-related (veneers, front-tooth bonding, onlays, Invisalign) and surgical procedures (surgical extractions and bone grafts, crown lengthening). I strive to practice conservative and biomimetic dentistry—and that’s often more challenging and time-consuming, but I always educate my patients that it’s worth it to sit in the chair a little longer.


What’s your favorite patient story?

A patient I met at an office where I used to work as an associate dentist told me she had pain in her lower right side. I told her it was because of the two molar crowns impinging her gums (a biological width violation). I recommended crown lengthening and new crowns as a solution—right before I stopped working at that office.

A few months later, my assistant got a call from a patient who’d been searching for me after the office I used to work at told her I was no longer there. She drove two hours to visit my office. She was still in a lot of pain in her lower right side, even after root canal treatment, and said it kept her up at night. She had asked for help from several other dentists in the span of two years but they said the teeth were fine. I removed the old crowns and performed crown lengthening. After that, the patient was finally able to get some sleep.


Where do you imagine dentistry as a profession will be in 10 years?

With the aid of artificial intelligence and machine learning in dentistry, I imagine preventive dentistry having a compelling niche and revenue stream. Dentists may be able to predict the evidence-based future oral health issues for each individual and provide preventive solutions. Advanced technology will allow dentists to generate accurate diagnoses and prognoses of cavities, mobile teeth, oral cancer, the source of TMJ pain and more. A plethora of research studies has already shown that oral and systemic health are interrelated. I believe in 10 years, collaborative oral and systemic health care will be essential in delivering comprehensive care.

Top Products

NexHealth patient experience platform. A savvy, comprehensive service that helps you operate an automated business. It’s user-friendly for both clients and business, and it can be integrated with any third-party dental electronic health record system (such as Opendental, which we use), and there are many features and services that have helped attract new patients to our office.

3Shape Trios intraoral scanner. Investing in this scanner early in my business has been one of the most game-changing decisions. It is one of the fundamentals of future dentistry because it allows an efficient, accurate diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of conditions.

Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible Gen5 diffuser. The Gary Fong diffuser is my favorite because it provides a soft, omnidirectional light that evenly illuminates the teeth and captures every detail of them.

Myro Marketing. The marketing agency provides services from websites to digital ads and SEO. Paul, the company’s founder, is an exceptional marketing and SEO expert. I’ve been working with him to make our business more visible online in the highly competitive market of Los Angeles.

Kois Dento-Facial Analyzer. The Kois facebow is very easy to use, so I highly recommend it for communicating aesthetic cases with your lab.


What’s a mistake you’ve made as a business owner that you learned an important lesson from?


Making mistakes is a part of being an entrepreneur. I made many small to big mistakes along the way. The key is to not repeat the same mistake after learning from it.

The biggest mistake I’ve made is having no sense of how long a certain task will take and getting mentally affected by not seeing an immediate outcome. You get to see all kinds of success stories in business but don’t know how much time and effort went into them before seeing the great result. I underestimated the time it takes for the business to get set up and operate smoothly.

For instance, in the beginning when there were days when we had zero—zero—patients. I’d have mini panic attacks. Only after talking to my mentor and friend, endodontist Dr. Ali Vaziri, was I able to calm down. He told me how when he opened his practice, he initially was twirling his fingers because there were no patients—it took him at least a year to pick up the pace. There’s a saying that everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you expect it to. It is true.


Who inspires you from the dental world? Who inspires you from the art world?

I am fascinated by Dr. Duval Aloush’s full-mouth cosmetic cases. His luxurious, stand-alone office is in the heart of Dubai. His understanding and execution of natural-looking veneers and crowns are something I aspire to bring to Beverly Hills. Perhaps with the trend stirred by the Hollywood movie stars and reality TV shows, often clients in Los Angeles want superwhite teeth that are flat in shape, exaggeratedly plump lips and curved hips, etc.—something I don’t find aesthetically pleasing because it looks unnatural. My vision is a renaissance of natural beauty, where people find the unique, natural characteristics of their teeth pleasing, a reminder of infinite ways beauty can be expressed. I work with one of the best labs in the world to achieve the vision I have, the most natural-looking veneers and teeth, and it’s been an exciting journey.

When I studied abroad in Italy, I encountered countless masterpieces by Michelangelo throughout Florence, Rome and Vatican City. Michelangelo’s eyes for aesthetics, work ethics and philosophy had a tremendous impact on me. Whenever my shoulder and back get tired from working as a dentist, it reminds me of Michelangelo talking about his neck pain while painting frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He was an ambitious creator with grit and talent, but completing the Sistine project still took him about five years!


Tell us about the business side of your office. How do things run day to day?

One fun part of owning a dental office is that I can be entrepreneurial and the sky’s the limit. I’m a minimalist and I approach the dental business that way as well—I invest only in essentials that will bring revenue to the business. I practice lean dentistry.

Our motto is transparency with patients and among the team. We strive to redefine dental visits as a place patients feel their time was well spent in a meaningful way because of a pleasant experience at the office. The actual dental work is only a fraction of the whole business operation to deliver a positive experience. Patients love chatting with us, so when it’s time to start their treatment, they’re relaxed and in a good mood.

I work with a marketing agent on SEO and it’s been a great investment to make our office visible online. We also incorporated Nexhealth, which has been a tremendous upgrade from a manual to an automated system where patients can book online, get automated appointment reminders, communicate through text message, submit forms online, etc.


Give us a snapshot of your personal life.

I attend workout sessions through ClassPass before I head to the office in the morning; my favorite classes are Sweat Yoga, Pure Barre and Rumble Boxing. I’ll have a light breakfast like juice or cereal afterward, shower and get ready for work.

I usually walk along South Beverly Drive for a quick lunch, absorbing abundant sunshine and breathing fresh air—it’s very therapeutic and sets the tone and great mood for the rest of the day.

Occasionally after work, I’ll grab dinner with a friend at the Westfield Century City shopping center and maybe do some window-shopping afterward. Every month, my art buddy Lisa (an undergraduate from NYU) and I allocate time from our busy lives to visit art galleries and museums.

I usually work on business before going to bed. I just got two kittens, Apollo and Luna, and they give me so much joy.




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