Can a pediatric practice be both a reflection of the owner’s strong individuality and an inclusive home away from home for patients and team members from every walk of life? Dr. Nana Odoom shows how it’s done.
DO IT ONCE, do it right. We’ve all heard that advice at some point, but Dr. Nana Odoom really took it to heart, successfully distilling a lifetime of learning into her practice, Smilehaus, situated just a few miles outside Pennsylvania’s capital city, Harrisburg. She planned specifically for managing the flow of young patients based on her own experience as well as that of her mentors. She considered how the practice should harmonize with her local community while serving children of all ages and abilities. She even contemplated her future when deciding on a practice name and brand strategy that would attract patients today and make the practice appealing to potential buyers when the time comes to retire. The result delivers on all counts.
Unsurprisingly, Dr. Odoom is no stranger to hard work. “As an immigrant, things take more time,” she says. The Ghana native’s personal journey has strongly informed her professional decisions, so much so that it’s hard to tell the story of her practice without also recounting how she got where she is today.
After majoring in biochemistry at the University of Ghana, one of the top 10 universities in Africa, Dr. Odoom attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. There, she crossed paths with Dr. Randall Ruisch, a cosmetic dentist who became a mentor and driving force in her career. “He’s the reason I decided to do dentistry,” she says. “He encouraged me and even paid my [dental school] deposit. Dentistry equals flexibility to do many things, he told me. It’s an opportunity to do science and also care for people. I looked at him—owning his own practice, doing mission trips and really enjoying life—and thought this might be something I’d like.”
However, getting there wasn’t quite so simple. “No one was going to cosign a dental school loan for me.” So Dr. Odoom worked as a research assistant at the University of Iowa over three years to save money and build credit. She eventually earned her degree from Columbia University, discovering pediatrics during her general practice residency at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York, before moving into pediatrics full-time at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx. “It’s not like I was unhappy being a general dentist, but I just fell in love with treating kids. I love accommodating their needs, and I really mesh well with them. They’re so dynamic and curious. It’s heartwarming.”
From there, she went to work for a community health center, even helping design the facility itself. “Because it was a CHC, the work was done by committee. A lot of different people and competing ideas were involved. But it was a valuable experience that would help me later.” Another beneficial experience was her next job at the practice of Dr. Peter Ross, a former Army dentist. “He made an impression on me by operating very efficiently, with hygiene on one side and treatment on the other,” she says. “I learned a lot from him.”
Unfortunately, she found herself drifting further from the lifestyle described by her mentor, Dr. Ruisch. Four years of working late and commuting several hours each day meant she didn’t see her kids until late in the evening. Something had to change.
She passed one possible location for a practice of her own during her commute and decided to check it out. “One day, I called the landlord from my car and said, ‘I’ll take it.’ Was I financially ready? Probably not. But enough was enough. I was feeling too drained professionally to worry about it.”
As it turned out, she wouldn’t need to go far for practical help in making her vision a reality. Her husband, Kofi, is the CEO of a back-office support firm called CFOtasks.com that specializes in startup medical practices. “He drafted my business plan and projections. We basically reverse-engineered my financials, starting with my goals and working backward from there.” By sheer coincidence, her neighbor is Benco Dental’s Ernie Verna, who has more than 50 years’ experience planning and equipping dental practices. Verna suggested they get some inspiration by visiting one of Benco’s CenterPoint equipment and design showrooms, located between New York and Philadelphia, only a few hours’ drive from their homes in central Pennsylvania.
She arrived at CenterPoint with a solid plan in her head—including a possible practice name. “I knew it couldn’t simply be the same as my name. I also didn’t want to name it after the town, because what if we expand or relocate?” She narrowed it down to one safe choice, Cumberland Valley Pediatric Dentistry, and a more conceptual option, Smilehaus. The latter “was a nod to the German heritage of my local community, and also the iconic Bauhaus style of design and architecture. But I was concerned no one would understand it.”
During her CenterPoint visit, Dr. Odoom found a kindred spirit in Benco’s Melissa Sprau, the company’s VP of Brand, Communications and Design. Sprau, whose background includes facilities planning for a large health care system, took one look at both name choices and immediately zeroed in on Smilehaus. “Melissa said, ‘This is very marketable!’ It was exactly what I needed to hear. She also understood the connection with Bauhaus design. We started talking about how to create a practice around those ideas. I went right to my attorney’s office and registered the name.”
Dr. Odoom worked with several members of Benco Dental’s design team to arrive at a plan she loved. “My direction was always centered on three goals: clean, modern, fun.” She’s quick to point out those goals aren’t merely a reflection of her own personal tastes. “Kids grow. I want patients to be comfortable regardless of their station in life, from infants all the way up to 18. A practice that achieves being clean, modern and fun has the potential to accommodate a wide range of patients.”
The finished design consists of one side with open rooms (for hygiene and exams) and the other with closed rooms (for treatment). The interior and decor carve out unique spaces with individual personalities that keep visits fun for patients while blending cohesively with the practice’s overall vibe. “When kids go from one side to another, it’s not scary, it’s an adventure.” Infants have their own place on the treatment side. Those with special needs “are treated the same as everyone else. We simply adjust their environments accordingly. For example, if lights are a trigger, we dim them.”
“Pay attention to what makes you happy and makes you thrive. Ask yourself, how do I feel at work now? How do I want to feel?” —DR. NANA ODOOM
Winding their way past the welcoming room and through the practice, visitors experience an interior that doesn’t condescend to kids or impose a grownup’s idea of what should make them feel welcome. It provides enough visual sparks to light up the imagination, but not so many that it risks overwhelming young sensibilities. Generous swaths of glass and glossy whites eliminate even the slightest hint of claustrophobia. Wherever you are, it feels like you’re in precisely the right place.
That’s quite an accomplishment, one Dr. Odoom is quick to share credit for. In addition to her mentors and hired guns for design and branding, she says the larger dental community was a great resource. “There are so many groups now on social [media], but there are also older, highly experienced doctors who are incredibly generous and who want to share their advice. Not enough people ask them for help. I’m not shy; I asked.”
Of course, with the creation of Smilehaus under her belt, Dr. Odoom is now officially a resource herself. Her advice to prospective practice owners: “Pay attention to what makes you happy and makes you thrive. Ask yourself, how do I feel at work now? How do I want to feel? What experience do I wish to share with patients? If you can create a home away from home that lets you be your best, you’ll deliver the best care.”