Office Visit: Dr. Tatiya Ungphakorn by Kyle Patton, associate editor

Office Visit: Dr. Tatiya Ungphakorn 

by Kyle Patton, associate editor
photography by Sean Siegel

Orthodontists spend most of their working hours inside their own 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 how they practice.

This Townie started her career as a dentist in Thailand, where she served in the Royal Thai Navy and got a taste for travel. Today, 8,500 miles from where she began, Dr. Tatiya “Tiya” Ungphakorn is showing Queens, New York, what she can do in a start-up. Partnered with a pediatric dentist, Ungphakorn is making the most out of a compact, boutique-style dual-specialty practice centered in an insanely competitive market.

In our exclusive Q&A, Ungphakorn lays out her approach to turning patient expectations and experiences into exceptional outcomes, the benefits of partnering with a pediatric dentist, the most important things to have in any office and more.

Office Highlights

Dr. Tatiya “Tiya” Ungphakorn
Graduated from:
Chulalongkorn University (Thailand); NYU College of Dentistry; NYU Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics

Practice name:
PCO Pediatric Dentistry and Orthodontics,
Queens, New York

Practice size:
1,300 square feet;
three semi-open bays and
two private operatories

Team size:

How’d you get into the profession?

I’ve always been interested in beauty and aesthetics. A smile is something that transcends culture, race, age and gender and is such an important aspect of beauty. To be able to help create that for my patients is my honor and privilege.

What are some similarities and differences when it comes to practicing in Thailand, compared with the U.S.?

Thai patients tend to be a lot more subtle and shy about verbalizing what they want, so it takes time to coax out their wants and needs and to understand what their desired outcomes are. American patients, on the other hand, are much more forward—especially in New York. Trust me, they are not shy at all!

Tell us about your time in the Royal Thai Navy. Were there experiences that shaped you into a better doctor?

The motto for the Royal Thai Navy roughly translates to, “Join the navy, see the world.” What this means to me is not only seeing the world in the literal sense but also getting to meet and treat people from all walks of life. I’ve treated everyone from privates on rural bases to generals at headquarters and academies. I know this has helped the way I interact with my patients and allows me to develop stronger empathy in treating them.

You’ve been a presenter and educator at events, usually centered around the quality of patient care. How can doctors improve that?

Listen and observe. There’s a reason we typically have two ears and two eyes but only one mouth.

Because of the long and rigorous years of training, we may fall into the trap of thinking we know everything. Remember, though, our job is not to judge patients from our ivory towers but to provide service and care. This can be achieved only through listening and keen observation. The whole point of informed consent is that the patient should understand which treatment options are available, and the pros and cons of each option; our job is to provide answers to any questions they might have, instead of just rushing to a conclusion and declaring the patient an extraction case, an aligner case, etc. We’re not treating cases, we’re treating patients—and patients are people.

Your practice pairs you with a pediatric dentist, Dr. Sara Rasamimari. What have been the pros and cons of that partnership? What advice do you have for orthodontists considering a similar move?

This practice is only about 18 months old, and I have been involved in all stages of its creation and management. It is a dual-specialty practice, but for the orthodontic portion we treat patients of all ages.

An obvious benefit is the internal co-referral system that we have; pediatric dentistry and orthodontics are highly complementary. Another huge pro is the ability to share the responsibilities of starting and running a practice—from not just a financial sense but also all aspects of management such as staffing, billing, communicating with the property owner, working with our social media team, etc.

Thankfully, and maybe because our clinic is so young right now, I can’t think of a major con. As the practice becomes busier, I foresee a limitation in the number of chairs, and “fighting” for the desired time slots could become an issue. (Good “problems,” right?)

One challenge is cross-training the staff. There’s a steeper learning curve, especially at the start, because it’s easier to train your staff in one specialty and for your manager to learn the codes for only one specialty, but we’re asking our staff to learn everything about two specialties.

My advice to anyone interested in partnering with a pediatric dentist: Really get to know your partner before you commit to doing business together. Education and qualifications are important, of course, but for the business relationship to be harmonious and successful, you must ensure that your personalities and management styles are complementary, at least, and hopefully even synergistic.

You’ve said you try to give patients an “experience,” rather than just have them come in for treatment. What experience do you hope to create, and how?

Orthodontists are not middlepersons for brackets and wires or aligners; we are professionals who provide a service. Studies have been published about patient satisfaction in orthodontic treatment and—this may come as a surprise to many doctors—several “soft factors” were ranked just as or even more important than the actual treatment outcomes themselves.

Many of these factors begin before the patient even steps foot into your practice. How easy was it to navigate your website? How was the interaction with your team on setting up an appointment? Were there clear instructions on how to get to your office?

We aim to create a positive experience that begins before the patient arrives. Patients should always be seen on time and never made to feel like their time is less important than ours. For example, I try to never make patients wait more than five minutes past their appointment time; if for whatever reason they do, either I or my manager will personally apologize to them, and at the end of the day, my manager and I review what happened to help ensure the same situation doesn’t happen again.

What practical steps can doctors take to make their work environment more positive?

As cliché as it may sound, communication is key. Nobody can read minds! We have to be clear and concise in our communication with our team members and partners.

There are also different modes of communication, based on the formality of what’s being said. With that in mind, we have designed a variety of chat groups so we can communicate casually with the whole office, just the back staff or just the front staff.

I know we are still young and small, but these are good habits that need to begin from the start. We also have periodic office meals so we can all chill out a bit and catch up with everyone outside the office. I’m fully aware of the famous quote from The Godfather, “It’s not personal; it’s just business.” I couldn’t disagree more! I think all business is personal to some degree, and if you want to create the best working environment, then it will be personal.

Tell us about the design and flow of your office, including your favorite elements.

We wanted a modern design that fits the neighborhood. We occupy the retail ground-floor unit in a new building in the Long Island City/Astoria area of Queens, a fast-growing neighborhood with a good blend of young professionals and families.

We worked with the architect to design an open-ceiling concept in the waiting room area, using lights in the 3000K range, which I believe is warm enough to be welcoming but not so dim it appears unprofessional. In patient areas, we have dropped ceilings and proper LED panels to accommodate treatment and patient care.

I love the abstract world map in the waiting room, which epitomizes New York City. Everyone is from somewhere with a story, and we welcome them all!

How do you like to run things in your office?

Not that different from how I treat my patients! Listen, observe, think, repeat as much as needed, and then speak. I am also fortunate to have a partner in the practice, so we can always discuss issues and bounce ideas off each other. Things need to be very organized and I firmly believe in using the “urgent versus important” matrix to decide how I prioritize my tasks.

Which cases or patients excite you the most?

I definitely enjoy the challenges of complex and difficult malocclusions. There often are patients who would qualify for orthognathic surgery but for a variety of reasons wouldn’t or couldn’t commit to it. Then we’ll try to perform camouflage treatment, if it’s feasible. I believe these difficult surgical cases, done nonsurgically, truly push the boundaries of our understanding of biology and mechanics.

I also simply adore the young patients in Phase I treatment—there’s something so sweet about their innocent excitement about choosing colors!

More importantly, though, is how often we’ve seen older patients with malocclusions that could have been lessened or avoided altogether if they’d come in sooner. Prevention is better than cure, and orthodontics is no different.

What pieces of technology or services could you not practice without?

  1. Intraoral scanners. The comfort and accuracy they bring to patients and the convenience of the workflow are just no-brainers.

  2. A call center. An answering service with 24-hour live agents has been great. How many of us have been frustrated with calling a company and having to click through a hundred options on a keypad, only to then be told the business is closed? Don’t subject your patients to the same experience. A call center with live agents allows you to still provide that human touch even when you may not be able to answer a patient’s call right away or the practice is closed.

  3. TADs and miniscrews. Regardless of whether you place them yourself or refer them out, TADs can be a gamechanger when it comes to treating certain malocclusions. Physics is physics. Newton’s third law of motion has and never will change.

  4. Clear aligners. If you don’t offer this as a treatment option—assuming the patient’s malocclusion qualifies, of course—you’re disadvantaging your practice against the competition.

  5. A professional social media team. As orthodontists, we’re busy enough trying to deliver the best-quality patient care; it’s impossible to do everything by yourself, especially when you get busy enough. There are only so many hours in a day! Working with a professional team that manages our social media allows us to focus on patient care, knowing we’re still building our online presence.

Where do you see the profession headed in the next 10 years?

Where do you want to be? I believe corporate dentistry is going to become more prevalent in the next 10 years, and that would include orthodontics as well. We will start to slowly but surely look more like the medical model. However, I think—I hope—there will always be a cottage industry for privately owned boutique practices that offer personalized and customized care and treatment.

How has your ABO certification led to success within your practice?

I believe that for the first time ever, the American Board of Orthodontics has managed to board-certify more than 50% of currently practicing orthodontists. That means we’re the majority now!

Patients are becoming savvier and have zero qualms looking up your credentials and qualifications.

Are there excellent orthodontists who are not board-certified? Of course. But I have always prioritized the importance of board certification, because the ABO is the only recognized board that objectively certifies its members based on their clinical expertise and knowledge. I believe I owe it to my teachers, myself and my patients to try to be the best I can be.

Queens has to be a competitive market. How do you approach marketing and patient growth?

All our marketing is purely digital through social media and Google. We have interacted with other dentists in the area, so some are starting to refer to us on a more regular basis. Now that the practice is starting to pick up the pace, we are starting to get some word-of-mouth referrals as well.

Give us a snapshot of your life outside of orthodontics.

I am a foodie who loves to travel. When traveling was easier before the advent of the pandemic, I would visit different countries and plan my itinerary around which restaurants I wanted to go to!

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