Life after fillings? Solid gold for some dentists.
Minus the high-tech equipment, Dr. Mladen Kralj's West Loop office could double as an after-hours lounge. The loft's exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, candlelit walkways and downbeat tunes suggest ladies' night over root canals. "There's no elevator music," says patient Elanor Horsley. "He plays cool stuff you'd actually listen to." The stylish environment is no accident, says Dr. Kralj, 42. Since October 2003, his ORA Dental Studio has aimed to make patients feel at home, whether they're stopping by for whitening or an entire smile makeover. Whatever the reason, clients keep coming. In 2004, in his first full year in business, Dr. Kralj pulled in annual revenues of $485,000 on a two day work week. Last year that figure nearly doubled as he expanded his days and hours to accommodate the increased demand for his services.
They're not after fillings. Dr. Kralj, who does primarily aesthetic dentistry, says a third of his patients request whitening. During the process, a patient's lips, eyes and gums are protected with plastic. Then a high concentration of hydrogen peroxide is applied to the teeth, which are then exposed to ultraviolet rays. Forty-five minutes — and $600 dollars — later, patients are out the door with a pearly white smile that lasts up to two years. To ensure longevity, custom whitening trays and refills could tack on an extra $350. Nationally, the number of aesthetic dentistry procedures increased about 13% in 2005, according to the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD). Of those services, the AACD says, most patients want bleaching, followed by bonding, and new crowns and bridges. Only small number of dentists in the Chicago area focus solely on such services. New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta lead the industry with the highest number of cosmetic dental procedures performed.
Also popular in Chicago are porcelain veneers: thin shells of ceramic material bonded to the front of teeth to mask discoloration. Ms. Horsley, 37, a hairstylist on Oak Street for nearly 16 years, received 10 veneers on her top teeth in 2004. "In my line of work," she says, "it's important to look your best." She paid $1,250 a tooth for her new look, for a total of $12,500.To meet surging demand, in February Dr. Kralj opened an office in Naperville, where he sees up to 10 patients a day in addition to the six patients he sees each day at the Loop location.
The AACD cites TV shows like "The Swan" and "Extreme Makeover" for the industry's recent boom — the programs glamorize cosmetic procedures. But locally, Dr. Kralj attributes his success to business people seeking a competitive edge. "People in Chicago's business world are improving their appearance with a stylish wardrobe, trendy haircuts, proper nutrition and fitness, and of course cosmetic procedures." he says. "If you're not pleased with your smile and tend to hide it, it could have an adverse effect on your personal, social and professional relationships." For many clients, teeth are just one more body part to fix. "At least 50% of them have had some other kind of cosmetic work done," Dr. Kralj says of his patients. "Whether it's Botox, Restylane, breast enhancement, tummy tucks, nose jobs … you name it.