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Sunday, July 16, 2006

WEEK 3

DRILL-SIDE MANNERS

Dental 'charm school' puts bite on competition


Staff writer

The Omori Group is a booming dentistry franchise company that doubled its sales to 1.07 billion yen last year and now aims to double them again to 2 billion yen this year.

News photo
Omori Group dental clinic workers undergo training in breathing control with the help of Ping-Pong balls in the mouth. REIJI YOSHIDA PHOTOS

But to share in this success, would-be Omori dentists have to do more than just wield a deft drill or fit a snug set of dentures.

These days, whatever Omori's mega-earnings might suggest, tending to the nation's teeth is a cut-throat business characterized by two competing trends -- on one hand, an over-supply of practitioners; on the other, millions of mouths that are healthier than they've ever been.

One result of this is a form of training for Omori franchisees that few in their white smocks and face masks probably ever thought they would have to undergo.

Forget high-tech lasers, sonic drills and the like. One key part of this cutting-edge course of 10, 90-minute sessions involves the men and women of Omori having to hold a stick horizontally across their mouths. Having learned this art in the classroom, Omori's finest are then encouraged to hold a pencil or chopstick in the same way for five minutes when they take a bath at home. This, they are told, will help to strengthen the muscles that give them a nice, reassuring smile.

Additionally, this technique is said to assist with another main plank of the Omori course, which is voice-training for the men and women in white. The object here is to control the breathing and intonation to help them sound bright and upbeat so they put their customers (not "patients") at ease. Interestingly, that part of the course is often taught by instructors who number politicians and professors among their other students aiming to come across sounding calm, friendly and reassuring.

And it's all part of the service -- the service that the franchise headquarters provides to doctors and workers at clinics bearing its name.

"I think this voice training is necessary. You need something to characterize your dental clinic, because now you find clinics everywhere, even in rural areas," said a dentist undergoing the training (but who asked not to be named).

Astonishingly, data from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry show there were more than 67,202 dental clinics in Japan as of February 2006 -- far outnumbering the 40,102 convenience stores in Japan, according to official figures for April 2006.

"The market has now matured and is saturated. We need businesses that have some added value," said Masahiro Tomochika, head of the management planning office of Omori Inc., the franchise group's parent company.

News photo
Training clinic staff in breathing, smiling and voice intonation are all part of Omori's business strategy.

Hence improving the quality of services for "customers" is one strategy being focused on to differentiate the group's operations from others, Tomochika said.

"Dentists wear surgical masks for most of their working time, and their muffled voices often make customers feel anxious," Tomochika said, explaining the reason his company has made voice training a must for doctors and staffers at its franchised clinic.

"Dentists have learned medical skills at college, but they have never learned how to serve their customers," Tomochika said. "But the times have changed, and now patients can be very choosy about their clinics," he said.

In this cut-throat climate -- with industry wisdom claiming there are now dozens of clinics within easy walking distance of some big-city stations -- Omori not only gives intensive training to its human resources. Especially to attract rich female customers, great attention is also paid to the atmosphere in its clinics.

To make the experience as friendly as possible, for example, customers will find ground-glass partitions separating them from the customer next-door, as well as pleasantly colored yellow chairs and white walls adorned with bright and fashionable pictures.

It all looks very salubrious, feeding the public perception that dentistry is one of the country's most profitable professions. But according to industry sources, the reality is no longer like that -- especially for young dentists trying to open their own clinics. To be sure, the average income level of dentists is still relatively high compared with other occupations, but in recent years it has been heading significantly south.

According to the Japan Dental Association, the average income of a dentist who runs a clinic fell from 18.83 million yen in 1993 to 15.29 million yen in 2001.

"The supply of dentists in relation to demand is the biggest problem we're facing right now," said Dr. Hiroshi Koyata, standing director of the Japan Dental Association, the nation's largest group of dentists.

It is all very different from before, when a serious shortage of practitioners prompted the government to encourage colleges to set up dentistry departments in the 1960s and '70s, said Koyata.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that one clinic treated, say, 100 patients a day at that time," said Koyata, 58, whose father was also a dentist.

The supply of dentists, however, caught up with demand around the mid-1980s -- at which time the Japan Dental Association asked the government and colleges to reduce the number of students by 10 percent, Koyata said.

But even now, 29 colleges with dentistry departments still churn out more than 3,000 new dentists every year, making the profession's business environment increasingly tougher, Koyata said.

Asked about the common public image of "rich dentists," he said: "Yes, indeed, it used to be a very profitable occupation." Until the burst of the bubble economy, he explained, many customers were willing to pay for expensive advanced treatments not covered by the public health insurance system. But then the "double punch" of the post-bubble recession and the worsening supply-demand situation has made business conditions tough.

"The good days for dentists have already gone," he said.

Ironically, the success of dentists' campaigns to eradicate decayed teeth has been another major problem, Koyata added.

"Most people now intake far less sugar because of their awareness about their health and weight control. In addition, most people have started brushing their teeth properly every day, further pushing down demand for dental services," Koyata said.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, of children aged 1 to 15 with tooth cavities, only 23.39 percent finished all the necessary medical treatment in 1987. By 1999, that percentage had risen to 41.48.

"People used to eat sweets that contained lots of sugar, but their way of viewing sugar has totally changed and they now eat far less," Koyata said.



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