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Visiting the Zentist

Feb. 1, 2003
Seattle suburb finds oral peace in Dr. Marie Durflinger's office design.

By Kristen Wright

Clients come early to lounge upon leather chairs. Some peruse magazines and sip cappuccino. Others swim in the sounds of an indoor water wall. What resembles a Seattle coffee house and sounds like the seaside composes the reception area of Dr. Marie Durflinger's suburban dental office, Auburn Family Dental, 1340 Eighth St. in Auburn, Wash., population 45,000.

Dr. Marie Durflinger, front, says her office's design keeps smiles on faces at Auburn Family Dental. Staff members are, from left, dental assistant Jeannette Todd, office manager Diane Cowen, sterilization technician Laura Tomaso, dental hygienists Alisa Luke and Jon Altman, scheduling coordinator Connie Lombardo, dental assistant Wendy Bloom, and front office assistant Dani Cowen.
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Durflinger, a 44-year-old Seattle native, purchased a three-chair, 900-square-foot dental practice in May 1997, two years after graduating from Loma Linda University School of Dentistry in Southern California. Leasing the space but owning the practice posed problems almost immediately for the former dental hygienist of 12 years.

"Close to a year after purchasing, I was told the landlord was going to take over the whole building," Durflinger says. "That was the motivation to seek a new location."

Dr. Marie Durflinger, Auburn Family Dental
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She interviewed two designers and began looking for spaces with plenty of natural light — a prerequisite for good cosmetic dentistry, Durflinger asserts.

"That's the first thing you do. I looked at two locations. The second space had three walls of light. When I found that space, I negotiated to purchase the space I occupied," she recalls. "When your contract ends and you can't renegotiate your contract, all that money you put into it is gone. I made sure I wasn't going anywhere. Fortunately, I had time to create and actually design with a designer. I had the luxury of time to work with a designer."

Durflinger chose Kirkland, Wash., interior designer Dan Nix of The DANNIX Design Team for the fluidity in his designs. Nix is known throughout the Northwest for his commercial, medical, and dental office projects. The duo, with help from Durflinger's staff, spent nearly a year incorporating shades of Durflinger's favorite color, purple, and her favorite flower, the tulip, into a design that complements slate tile and modern, curved walkways.

"He was phenomenal. He works off of your personality," Durflinger says. "I wanted it done right the first time, similar to the practice of dentistry. Let's not kid ourselves — time is money and redoing things is frustrating and costly."

Durflinger, a "lefty," longed for a left-handed friendly dental office. Accommodating her lean to the left was achieved using larger-than-standard operatories with dual entries and A-dec Radius dental chairs that may be used from both sides.

"I spent a lot of time trying to find the most comfortable chairs out there. Patient comfort is very important to me because patients can be in the chair for a long appointment," Durflinger says.

Auburn Family Dental reopened Jan. 3, 2000, with a fresh, contemporary look and a new address.

"I sent out invitations for an open house," Durflinger says. "At one point, I literally couldn't get through the hallway; it was so packed. That was exciting."

Four years later, she, her six full-time employees, and two part-time support staff treat some 3,000 patients in the five-chair, 2,100-square-foot office. Adding two additional chairs meant adding staff as the practice grew.

With the additional staff, Durflinger evolved from micromanaging into empowering her staff to take on more responsibility. This, in turn, freed her to concentrate on exceptional dentistry, excellent patient care, and to maintain the business aspect of the practice.

When asked to name her favorite part of the office, she feels that the entry is the most important space in her practice.

"As the patient enters the front door, their eyes are drawn to the soothing water wall where the colors are esthetically pleasing," she says. "To the left is the beautiful chaise lounge and to the right is an adult sitting area with comfortable chairs and an inviting fireplace. There is a cove area especially designed for children, complete with toys, videos, and books for their enjoyment.

"It kind of takes my breath away. It's very comfortable. The atmosphere that has been created is welcoming and pleasing. I want patients to feel like they are guests in my home."

A calming effect is repeated throughout the office design in soft, rounded corners, spacious operatories, as well as the design of the ceilings, floors, and the soft lighting. Durflinger tries to keep a balance between the design's tranquility and her schedule's hectic pace. Business hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday. She and her staff perform most in-depth procedures during mornings. Appointments fill quickly.

"People want those afternoon appointments," she says. "We work really hard, but I like it. They always said I'd be a good emergency room physician because the adrenaline is always flowing. You have to be very organized. That's why we have support staff. We have someone to develop X-rays, tear rooms down and set them up, and stock our room. There are four staff members who have at least 20 years of dentistry experience. Collectively, we have more than 120 years of experience. They know what to do."

Employees include dental hygienists Jon Altman and Alisa Luke, dental assistants Jeannette Todd and Wendy Bloom, office manager Diane Cowen, scheduling coordinator Connie Lombardo, front office assistant Dani Cowen, and sterilization technician Laura Tomaso.

"The most important thing to us is to make sure we take care of our patients," Durflinger says. "I was a staff member at one time and I feel as though I still am. We function as a team. I am not afraid to roll up my sleeves and pitch in. It's not uncommon for me to seat a patient or clean up a room. We are all in this together. We look at the schedule as a whole. We have an overflow chair, so if we are running behind, we can still seat the patient on time. If something happens, the schedule isn't thrown off."

Within two years, Durflinger expects to pay in full her portion of the building, leasehold improvements, the original purchase of the practice, and the equipment.

Initially she was leery of purchasing such expensive equipment, but now Durflinger knows her investments were worth it. Her big-ticket items include a thermal disinfector (the Miele Dental Disinfector), a cassette system, and computers equipped with Dentrix and CAESY Enterprise in each operatory.

"I don't purchase things and then let them sit on the shelf," Durflinger says. "I'm not wasteful."

Durflinger says she owes much to her family, friends, and dental staff for their love, support, and encouragement.

"Dr. Bob Little, University of Washington Orthodontic Department, was responsible for me entering the field of dentistry, and I am forever grateful and indebted to him. He is my mentor, as well as Dr. James Dunn, professor of restorative dentistry at Loma Linda University School of Dentistry. Dr. Dunn recognized my ability to excel in cosmetic dentistry and encouraged me to pursue advanced dental education."

Durflinger is enrolled in furthering her education with Dr. John C. Kois, Creating Restorative Excellence Center for Advanced Dental Learning in Seattle.

She's pleased with her growing practice, and lets others in on her new motto.

"Dream it. Plan it. Do it," she says. "My office is not intimidating. I feel that it has class and a style that is timeless. I believe in doing it right the first time, not just for the practice, but for the patients.

"Your staff is a reflection of you. If you're excited, they're excited. It's this excitement that creates the energy and vitality that runs throughout our practice. We are constantly encouraged and inspired towards a higher good. We believe in the strength of a shared vision."

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