A patient's snoring problem led to a vast new career pathway for a New York dentist.
For Steve Lamberg, DDS, the apple truly did not fall far from the tree. The Long Island, NY-based dentist followed in his father’s footsteps. He spent considerable time at his father’s practice as a child, and always enjoyed sculpting and science.
“Dentistry seemed to be the only profession where you could be involved in science and art at the same time,” Lamberg explains.
And that might have been all there was to tell were it not for a patient with a very specific problem in 2004. That patient—a physician, and friend from Lamberg’s book club—said he his wife complained that his snoring was keeping five people in the house awake every night.
“He begged me for an oral appliance to treat his snoring and apnea,” Lamberg recalls.
That’s when the Lamberg Sleep Well Appliance was born.
Dental Sleep Medicine
To be accurate, the appliance didn’t come about overnight. Lamberg went through several iterations of devices—six to be exact—in an attempt to cure the patient’s snoring and sleep apnea problem. None of them worked, or were to the patient’s liking—mostly because they were too big and bulky. So Lamberg decided to come at the problem from a different angle—from the realm of dental sleep medicine.
“I began playing around with these little devices called de-programmers,” Lamberg says. “And it worked. And he was happy.”
The physician was so happy that he referred many of his own patients to Lamberg. Some of these patients had reflux issues, others had endothelial dysfunction and a variety of other conditions that—in addition to their snoring—all seemed to disappear by using the Sleep Well Appliance.
By 2005 Lamberg signed up to attend the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine and never looked back. At the time there were about 700 members; today there are approximately 4,000.
“I started taking courses everywhere I could, and have not missed an Academy meeting,” Lamberg says. “Four years ago I got boarded in dental sleep medicine. And after that they asked if I wouldn’t mind teaching their board review classes.”
Before long his sleep practice was equivalent to his dental practice.
“And that was without really trying,” he says. “I found it very gratifying because you’re helping people feel better, and helping them with conditions that have other negative impacts on their health.”
A Teaching Center
Lamberg went on to have the appliance patented, FDA approved, and approved for Medicare patients. He says it has been a long, fun journey, and very rewarding in more ways than financial. That latter aspect relates to helping other dentists integrate dental sleep into their practice.
“Taking impressions, there’s no learning curve,” Lamberg says. “Fitting the appliance, there’s no learning curve. It’s like so many things we do already. The big learning curve is how to implement it in your front desk and management areas.”
He explains that dental insurance is the same as medical insurance with respect to pre-authorizations to ensure which procedures are covered and which are not. In addition, a diagnosis often must first be made by a physician before Lamberg can treat them. So, if a patient comes to his office, says they snore and wants to use an appliance, Lamberg can not simply provide one because then he is making a diagnosis that the patient doesn’t have apnea.
“If they say they snore, then they have to see a physician and be diagnosed that it’s not sleep apnea,” he explains. “Then we can make the appliance.”
So Lamberg developed the Lamberg Seminars to help teach dental sleep medicine to dentists.
“One of the things that I teach is how to screen a patient,” Lamberg says.
He explains that the average dental practice has approximately 1,000 patients, and about 20% of them—or 200 people—need the Sleep Well Appliance.
“This is something that’s huge and they don't realize it,” Lamberg says. “But they can build a business. And once they treat the first couple of hundred patients, they’ll be developing relationships with all the physicians in the area.”
Building relationships with all the specialists in the area takes time, but Lamberg says it’s time well spent.
“Ninety-five percent of my referrals are from the pulmonary guy,” he says. “And the rest I get from patients referring patients. It’s very low stress, because you’re taking impressions and adjusting appliances. But it’s a very profitable area.”
Lamberg lives a very active lifestyle away from his practice. He enjoys a wide range of activities including sailing, yoga, and cooking.
“Yoga can tie you into the spiritual side of yourself,” he says. “Everybody has some of that, and it’s nice to be in touch with it.”
But he also likes being in touch with nature, biking, and hiking through the mountains.
“It’s physical, but also aesthetic,” he says. “It’s nice to clear out your head and go for a long bike ride, run or swim.”
Lamberg believes it’s important for people to have balance in their lives. He uses his dental practice as an analogy.
“Treating sleep apnea patients is a nice balance from filling holes in teeth, and making veneers and crowns,” he explains. “You do all that stuff, but it’s nice to take off the magnifying hoops and just talk to the patient. Get to know them, and find out what their lives are really like.”
And he’s grateful for the impact he’s been able to have on people’s lives. Like the 70-year-old gentleman who told him, “Thank you doctor, I’m now sleeping with my wife again.” Or the patient who was on medication for reflux and couldn’t stand the side effects, but now doesn’t need to rely on the medication.
“You change people’s lives, and have an opportunity to make them feel better,” Lamberg says. “And that’s very rewarding.”