Dentistry has changed a lot in the last 30 years, and in many ways Dr. Scott LaClair has led the local revolution at his Clayton Dental Office.
With technological advancements in the field and a solid base of patients in the north country, Clayton Dental, located at 175 Graves St., is looking forward to a bright future, according to Dr. LaClair.
Dr. LaClair was born and raised in the north country, and wanted to return to the St. Lawrence River after school. He came to town at a time when there were many dentists and not enough patients to go between them. But Dr. John Eppolito, known as Doc Eppolito in town, was nearing his retirement and was interested in selling his practice.
“I purchased the practice within a couple years of coming to town,” he said.
Dr. LaClair now works with Doc Eppolito’s granddaughter, Dr. Chelsea Eppolito, who focused on pediatric dentistry at the office.
Dr. LaClair said Dr. Chelsea Eppolito’s focus on pediatric dentistry has allowed him to focus on adult and geriatric dentistry, diversifying the practice and allowing them to serve whole families, from grandparents and great-grandparents to infants.
“There are procedures that pediatric dentists like Dr. Chelsea do that this office never performed before, there’s no doubt her presence has allowed us to grow,” he said. “We’re evolving as a dental practice.”
Between Clayton Dental’s own growth, and the field of dentistry’s growth on the whole, Clayton Dental has come a long way.
Dr. LaClair graduated from dental school in 1995, a time when the country was finishing its battle with the worst of the HIV epidemic. The blood-borne disease posed many risks for medical practices of all kinds, and Dr. LaClair said dentistry practices adapted to modernize in light of those risks.
“Dental schools were starting to have an emphasis on having a medical basis for dentistry, rather than it being done like carpentry in the mouth,” he said.
The tools themselves became modern medical implements, made of surgical steel and cleaned after every use in an autoclave, which uses high-pressure steam to sterilize items.
The technology used to perform procedures has changed dramatically as well. Dr. LaClair said laser implements are becoming more common. Computerized design and manufacturing of dental crowns, bridges and implants has sped up many procedures so they can be finished in a matter of hours, not days. Digitized imaging devices have dramatically improved accuracy and given dentists a better look at the jaw and unerupted teeth, while also dramatically reducing the amount of radiation needed.
“All of these things are commonplace now, that all dentists experience, but were not commonplace in 1995, or even 2005,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented some unique challenges for the dental industry, Dr. LaClair said. Respiratory illnesses have always been a concern, because it’s impossible to work on a patient without getting well within their respiratory plume, or the range in which their breath can be inhaled.
“When COVID-19 hit in 2019, the number one, two and three most high-risk professions were dental assistant, dental hygienist and dentist,” he said. “There was a lot of hysteria in dentistry in the plume created by our instruments and breathing around the patient’s head.”
Dr. LaClair said his office took steps to mitigate spread once they returned to the office after the initial wave of infections in 2020. Staff were changing clothes and laundering their work gear at the office, and they implemented a new screening system for patients coming into the office.
“We screen our patients three times before they get to our office, twice on the phone and once in an addition we built out front that we have staffed all the time,” he said.
So far, he said Clayton Dental is proud to say they have no confirmed transmissions of COVID-19 between any patients or staff in their office.
As the field has advanced, patients’ expectations have grown as well. Dr. LaClair said there’s significantly more interest in the aesthetic side of dental care, keeping their teeth straight and white in color. In his estimation, patients of all ages today are more interested in protecting the appearance of their teeth because they have been raised to value them more than former generations, and have been given more opportunity to protect them.
“We are getting more people, deeper into life who haven’t had any major dental problems that would require them to lose teeth,” he said. “By the time they do get to a point where problems start, they’ve been valuing their teeth their whole lives and seek to keep them as healthy as possible.”
Dr. LaClair said he thinks online culture, driven by “selfies” and presenting your best self, has also played a part in the aesthetic dentistry craze.
“Most selfies are headshots, centered on a smile,” he said. “They’re centered on the teeth.”
Dr. LaClair said mask wearing and the social distancing seen for the last few years in response to COVID-19 may have kept some people away from the dentist’s office, because their smiles have become less important for social interactions. But as mask mandates disappear, he said he has seen more patients coming back to the office.
The pandemic also pushed some of the area’s older dentists out of work earlier than they may have chosen otherwise, which he said has led to a crisis in Northern New York’s dentistry field.
“It’s not a new thing; it’s been exacerbated by COVID-19, but just like nationally, in Northern New York we have way more patients than we have opportunities to treat them,” he said.
He continued that Clayton Dental is hoping to address that in their own sphere, by bringing on another associate dentist in the near future.
“I think we will probably be adding associates,” he said. “If we are in a situation where we could add multiple associates, then we will take a look at becoming a multi-facility dental practice.”
No matter how they expand, Dr. LaClair said Clayton Dental will always be ready to offer their best care to patients.