What do Netflix and ChapStick have to do with dentistry? It's all a part of making the patient experience enjoyable says Shimma Abdulla, D.M.D.
“Take good care of patients, and treat everybody the way you would a family member.” -- Shimma Abdulla, D.M.D.
Shimma Abdulla, D.M.D., has all the credentials and certifications of a highly qualified dental practitioner. But it’s her personal experience with a childhood congenital condition that that transformed her life, not to mention her smile, and directed down the path to a patient-centered career in dentistry.
Shimma Abdulla’s life has centered around teeth. This includes her patients’ teeth at her Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia-based practice, and her own when she was a child. So much so where the former is concerned that she became obsessed with teeth.
Abdulla, who is a graduate of the Temple University Kornberg School of Dentistry, made frequent visits to the dentist through her teens due to missing eight adult teeth that never came in.
“I was always self-conscious about that,” Abdulla recalls. “I tended to shy away from any type of social interaction.”
Once her dental work was completed, however, her self-confidence was transformed. She felt comfortable smiling, and is now able to relate to patients who are nervous or uncomfortable with their smile, and share her story.
“I’m able to relate to them,” Abdulla says. “And I know how nervous they are just sitting in the chair and talking about it.”
Abdulla was born in the Middle East, but moved to the United States at age 3, where her family lived in Albany, New York for about five years. A stint in Pittsburgh lasted another five years before moving back to the Middle East for high school. She returned to the U.S. to attend Penn State University for her undergraduate work before moving to Philadelphia for dental school.
She opened her first practice in Rittenhouse Square in 2011, but it didn’t take long before she added an office in nearby Bala Cynwyd in 2015, and most recently a third in Bryn Mawr. The key to the successful expansion, she says, was making sure the first office was functioning the way she intended.
“It has to be on auto pilot in order for you to comfortably step away and start a new venture,” Abdulla explains. “Once the practice was pretty much running on its own and I was doing a lot of the management and administrative stuff, I thought, okay, I think I’m ready to open another location and copy the same model.”
Clearly, the model works. Three offices in seven years is quite an accomplishment, and Abdulla admits that, looking at the big picture, she’s a little surprised at the rapid success she’s had. But only a little.
“I have always had an itch to do more,” she says. “It’s something that my mother instilled in me. You should never settle and be comfortable. You can always do more. I don’t feel like I’m accomplished yet. I still feel like there’s more room to grow.”
As her dental practices have grown, Abdulla has continually merged dentistry with cosmetics—much of which, she says, has sprung from conversations with patients who are often embarrassed to say they’re unhappy with their smile.
“But if you ask them, ‘Are you happy with your smile? Is there anything you want to change about it?’ you’d be surprised how people will share how something has always bothered them, like the color of their teeth.”
And change, she says, doesn’t necessarily mean a major overhaul. Sometimes all it takes is a little bonding or teeth whitening to help boost a patient’s self-confidence. The emphasis, Abdulla points out, is on patient care, and that’s something she makes clear to everyone at the practice.
“It’s not about numbers, and it’s not about collections and production,” she says. “It’s just about treating patients well and taking care of them, and everything else falls into place.”
That, she says, has been the secret to her success—which she admits is not much of a secret.
“Take good care of patients, and treat everybody the way you would a family member.”
Adbulla demonstrates her mission to make patients as comfortable and relaxed as possible with amenities like espressos and wine, and Netflix goggles so they can watch their favorite programs while having work done. This, too, came from talking to patients.
“We always put ChapStick on patients’ lips before every appointment,” Abdulla says. “It’s such a small touch, but for them, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m already more comfortable because you guys are more thoughtful than the last dentist I had.’”
Many male patients, Abdulla explains, like the Netflix goggles because they don’t even want to look at the needles or other tools. They’re nervous, but with the Netflix goggles they can simply “check out and watch a movie, and we can still communicate with them.”
Abdulla also offers a hand paraffin treatment—a warm lavender wax—which patients find welcoming particularly during the winter. The process helps to diffuse patients, especially those who are prone to being nervous, prior to their appointments. The end result is positive patient referrals.
“Word of mouth has always been one of our biggest practice boosters,” Abdulla says. “I ask every patient who comes in, especially with a new practice, how they heard of us, and 90 percent is word of mouth. That’s how important the patient experience is. It’s the difference between a regular business, and a very successful one.”
Abdulla says she pursued a career in dentistry because she knows the huge impact it had on her life. That’s a feeling she wants to share with others.
“We recently started doing Botox for TMJ pain and injections,” Adbulla says. “One patient was crying because she was in so much pain, and she had tried everything. I said, ‘Let’s try Botox and see if it will work.’”
Two weeks later the woman said she felt like a new person, and was now able to sleep at night.
“That made my whole day,” Abdulla says. “That’s the main reason I went into dentistry, was to help people. So getting that affirmation is the most rewarding thing for me.”
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