Office Visit: All Aboard! by Kyle Patton, associate editor, Orthotown magazine

Orthotown Magazine

Orthotown Magazine
by Kyle Patton, associate editor Orthotown magazine

Orthodontists spend most of their working hours in their practices, so they usually don’t get many opportunities to see what it’s like inside another doctor’s office. Orthotown’s recurring Office Visit profile offers a chance for Townies to meet their peers, hear their stories and get a sense of their practice protocols.

In this issue, we introduce Dr. Eli Halabi, a Syrian-born doc who came to the U.S. as a refugee when he was a teen. Check out this unique train-themed office designed by Halabi himself, and read how he has come from humble beginnings to become a staple in his community.

Orthotown Magazine

You had an interesting and unusual childhood. Tell us a little bit about it.

Growing up in Damascus, Syria, I always thought that my unique interaction with different cultures distinguished me as a person and helped form my character. Living in a predominantly Muslim country, attending a French-Catholic school while observing Jewish laws and customs, I was well acquainted with my multicultural surroundings. Despite the many positive cultural experiences, however, the turmoil in the region forced my family to move to the U.S. as political refugees when I was 14.

I was the first in my family to get a travel visa, so I moved alone and lived at a relative’s house for two years before my family finally came. I remember being a teenager struggling to adapt socially and academically, trying to succeed in an unfamiliar world. I believe that facing adversity and overcoming obstacles as a child helped shape who I am today. I became independent at a young age, and learned to work hard and strive to be the best that I could be. I implement the same principles now in my family as a husband and father, as well as in my professional life as an orthodontist.

What was the path you took to becoming an orthodontist?

I am an artist by nature; I love drawing, painting and sculpting. I majored in fine art in college and was contemplating pursuing a career in architecture and design. I even had some of my artwork on display at local art exhibits in New York City. In orthodontics, I found a career that perfectly fit my personality. I get to express my artistic side in creating and designing beautiful smiles while tremendously affecting people’s lives and self-confidence.

Developing space in New York is tough enough, but you also designed your practice. How did it all come together?

I had finished residency and moved back to Brooklyn right about when the Great Recession happened. I knew that opening a practice from scratch would be exceptionally challenging at a time of economic uncertainty. So, I worked as an associate for a few years before deciding to take the plunge in 2010. Real estate in New York comes at a premium. I was lucky to come across a second-floor space in a medical building with great foot-traffic exposure, in the middle of a shopping area in an affluent community. The space had been vacant for a few years because the previous tenant couldn’t afford the original pre-recession rent.

My friend, a real estate broker, negotiated a takeover from the tenant and a long-term lease from the landlord with new terms that were reasonable for me at the time. The buildout was most exciting. Because of my background in art and design, I researched different possible layouts and designed the office myself. I wanted it to be unique and inviting while having a functional workflow. The office is a little more than 2,000 square feet, so I didn’t have a large space to work with, but I was fortunate to work with a great local contractor who was patient and open to my ideas.

You have some nice-looking model trains in your practice. What’s the story?

I love model trains and railways. I’ve had a locomotive collection since I was a kid. With the scenery, the landscape and the backdrop, building model railways is truly a 3-D art form. People tell me that I built my office around my train collection, instead of the other way around. We have train tracks spanning the base of the ceiling throughout the office, with G-scale model trains constantly running from the reception area into our treatment room, and loop around. It’s a major feature in our practice. I think the theme of trains is great for an ortho practice because it’s gender- and age-neutral, and fun to look at! Little kids beg their parents to bring them to our office just to see the trains. It makes our office memorable—something children and parents constantly talk about.

What’s it like practicing in Brooklyn?

Brooklyn is a one-of-a-kind place to live and work. It’s truly home to everyone from everywhere—a melting pot of cultures, if you will. Having had a multicultural background myself, I’m able to relate to people from all walks of life. My team and I speak a combined 11 languages at our office, which has allowed for better communication and a stronger bond with our patients.

Orthotown Magazine

Even with such a dense population, your area is heavily saturated with providers. How do you stay competitive?

Besides our constant focus on exceptional customer service, we always pride ourselves on excellent communication. I really believe that an informed patient is a happy patient; this is why we spend the majority of our time talking and educating patients and parents. We go above and beyond to ensure that our patients are involved in their own treatment and are constantly engaged. We also offer things like evening and Sunday appointments, accelerated orthodontics, lifetime retention guarantees, low initial down payments and extended payment options beyond treatment time, to name just a few. We are known to be a very generous practice, and we constantly aim to remove financial obstacles that would hinder potential patients from starting treatment at our office. Recently, we’re getting involved in 3-D printing and manufacturing in-house clear aligners for minor tooth movement to provide more-affordable options for our patients.

What’s the most effective form of marketing for your practice?

Word-of-mouth is the most potent and far-reaching marketing technique there is. People talk—especially if they experience something different that’s worth sharing with their friends. We constantly ask patients how we’re doing and how we can do better. And we’re never shy to ask for referrals.

Let’s talk shop. What’s your philosophy on treatment?

I’m a big believer in a face-driven treatment approach. I feel privileged to have been trained in a residency program that was largely influenced by the teachings of Dr. Larry Andrews.

Andrews is known for the straight-wire appliance and the “Six Keys to Optimal Occlusion.” What he’s less known for, but is one of his largest contributions to orthodontics, is “The Six Elements of Orofacial Harmony.” These are optimal treatment goals for the areas where orthodontists should have diagnostic responsibility and treatment influence. They take into account the entire orofacial structure for optimal facial aesthetics and harmony.

I am especially keen on the element that deals with the anteroposterior position of the maxilla and the anterior limit of the upper incisors relative to the face. That’s why we routinely take profile smiling photos as part of our diagnostic records. I combine these ideas with Dr. Tom Pitts’ “Smile Arc Protection” principles into my treatment plans and bracket placement. I think our focus on excellent outcomes in facial and smile aesthetics sets us apart clinically.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the profession?

It certainly is an exciting but challenging time to be an orthodontist. With competition lurking everywhere from corporate chains to direct-to-consumer options, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for young private practitioners to distinguish themselves in a saturated market.

Having said that, more and more patients are seeking orthodontic treatment than ever before with the help of the internet and social media. You must establish an identity of who you are as a practitioner and communicate what makes you different to the potential patient. It is something we certainly deal with on a daily basis.

What is something you do vastly different than when you first began practicing?

I see our profession changing at lightning speed. What you know and do now will be obsolete in a matter of years (if not months). I certainly put an emphasis on being in the know about the latest technologies. Recent advancements are revolutionizing the way we treat patients.

What advice would you give a doctor who’s entering the field and starting a practice?

An important piece of advice when starting a practice is to set realistic expectations for yourself. Know your market and what you’re getting yourself into. Hire people who are smarter than you in financial matters to help you with financial decisions. Debt is your enemy. Don’t buy every gadget and gizmo you think you need at the beginning. In the early years, being financially smart, controlling overhead and maintaining the proper cash flow as you grow are crucial.

One piece of clinical advice I would give is to address the chief complaint first before addressing anything else. What you perceive as important to you as an orthodontist might not even be a concern for the patient. This is especially true for adult patients. Also, realize that you can’t be everything to everyone. Some patients are going to love you, while others will prefer a different type of practice and that’s OK.

Orthotown Magazine

How has Orthotown helped your professional or social life? What’s your favorite feature?

I am a CE junkie. I truly enjoy orthodontics and consider myself a lifelong student of the discipline. I take as many courses in person and online as I can, and I am super active on the Orthotown app and social media learning groups. Orthotown has been my lens into the constantly progressing ortho world. I especially enjoy the message board forums and brainstorming over cases with fellow orthodontists. I really like learning from peers, and sharing and implementing new ideas into practice. I believe this collaboration and camaraderie is empowering and helps keep our profession strong and special.

Tell us a bit about your life outside of practice.

I am a family and community man first and foremost. My life revolves around my wife, my children and my community. I am very active in several organizations, especially the Sephardic Bikur Holim Community Service Network, which is dedicated to caring for those who are less fortunate. This organization helped my family financially and socially when we first moved to the United States. It is my privilege now, 20 years later, to help this amazing organization do the same for others in the community.

What can you not practice without?

My team! I believe that staff is the lifeline of any practice and the most important piece of the puzzle. I am blessed to be surrounded by people who genuinely view the practice as their own and always seek to see it grow and prosper.

Describe the most successful or rewarding experience in your professional life.

Helping young patients with their self-confidence during the most crucial years of their adolescent life is truly the greatest blessing of being an orthodontist. One case that comes to mind was during the time I worked as an associate in a multispecialty practice. A young girl with amelogenesis imperfecta and maxillary retrusion refused to smile because she was embarrassed about how her teeth looked.

The prosthodontist could not restore her front teeth because of her edge-to-edge anterior bite. After Phase I treatment with a rapid palatal expander/face mask, we could establish enough overjet to build up her anterior teeth before starting comprehensive treatment with braces. The look on her and her parents’ faces was priceless when they saw her new smile for the first time. Working together in a true multidisciplinary fashion to achieve a result that was certainly life altering for the young lady is what made the experience so rewarding.

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