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Commentary: Truck stop dentist feels no pain

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: Dentist in Iowa found ingenious way of boosting his business
  • He says dentist set up a thriving practice at a busy truck stop on Interstate 80
  • Greene: Traffic ensures there will be some truckers in need of dental care
  • He says the dentist can't rely on return business from his patients
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By Bob Greene
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose current book is "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

Bob Greene says one dentist in Iowa found an ingenious way of keeping his chair filled with patients.

Bob Greene says one dentist in Iowa found an ingenious way of keeping his chair filled with patients.

(CNN) -- You may not have the answer for how to thrive in a lousy economy. I may not have the answer for how to thrive in a lousy economy. But the truck stop dentist figured it out a long time ago.

"When your dental practice is in a truck stop, you don't have a lot of patients coming in for their six-month cleanings," said Dr. Thomas P. Roemer. "You have people walking in holding their jaws in pain. Treatment is not optional -- they need to see a dentist, and they need to see me now."

Dr. Roemer's one-man dental office is inside the Iowa 80 Truckstop, at Exit 284 of Interstate 80, near the small town of Walcott. The complex proclaims itself to be the world's largest truck stop, and if you've never been there -- well, the truck stop itself is probably a story for another time. Suffice it to say that the establishment is spread over 200 acres, that it features its own movie theater, a 300-seat restaurant with a 50-foot salad bar, the Super Truck Showroom (more than 75,000 truck-related items for sale, festooned with enough gleaming chrome to make you reach for your sunglasses).

But the topic for today is Dr. Roemer, and how he ended up offering root canals in a building where people stop for diesel fuel.

These desperate economic times highlight the importance of individual inventiveness and ingenuity -- and a dentist has to be beyond ingenious to gaze upon an Iowa truck stop and figure out: A fellow could make himself a pretty nice living in there.

"I had a regular dental practice over in Davenport," Dr. Roemer, 48, told me. "I had an advertisement in the Yellow Pages. And in the early 1990s I noticed that I kept getting calls from truckers who were in a phone booth out by the Iowa 80 Truckstop. They had stopped for fuel, and they were in a lot of pain, and they absolutely had to see a dentist."

Now... Walcott, the town adjacent to the truck stop, has only 1,500 residents. But the truck stop itself caters to an estimated 5,000 customers a day, most of them long-haul truckers passing through. The light bulb above Dr. Roemer's head snapped on.

"I made arrangements with the truck stop to open up an office," he said. "At first I split my practice between my old office in Davenport and the truck stop office. But I ended up closing the old one. My entire practice is in the truck stop now."

Business is good, he said, even during the recession. There have been stories from around the country about doctors and dentists seeing fewer patients, because people just don't have the money to come in for regular checkups. But a truck stop dental office is not a place where patients come because they have planned it -- a truck stop dental office is a place where patients come because they need immediate relief.

"The sentence I hear the most often is, 'Do you pull teeth?'" Dr. Roemer said. "Someone will come in with his hand to his face, and he'll want to have a tooth extracted. He will have heard that I'm here."

But how do truckers learn about Dr. Roemer's practice?

"Word of mouth," he said.

(So to speak.)

The business model of most dental offices, he said, is based on teeth-cleaning: A dentist builds up his or her list of loyal patients and their families who come in to get their teeth cleaned, and when they need fillings or crowns, the office is there for them. The truck stop dentist, by necessity, turns that business model inside out.

"I usually see a patient once, and then never see him again," he said. "Truckers aren't going to say to me, 'I'll be back for a cleaning on September 23 at 2 in the afternoon.' They can't plan where they're going to be. I make patient files for the people who come in, but I know that I'll probably never have a reason to open the files after they walk out the door. These are mostly one-time patients."

He doesn't have the luxury of knowing, at the beginning of a day, how many patients he will see -- or even if he will see any. "It can range from zero patients in a day to 15," he said. "It's unusual for a patient to call in advance. I'll know I have a patient when the door opens and a trucker walks in, with that look on his face."

Dr. Roemer's success, he said, is based on two factors: the steady flow of those 35,000 people who pull in to the truck stop every week, and the actuarial certainty that some of them will be truckers with a mouthful of hurt.

"I had a guy who came in yesterday who told me he was in such pain that he had tried to pull his own tooth," Dr. Roemer said. "I told him there was no need for that. I told him that I could help him."

It does get a little lonely out at Exit 284, not being able to build up a continuing relationship with his patients, the way most dentists do. Sometimes, as a patient is getting up from the chair to leave, Dr. Roemer will find himself saying:

"Make sure you try to get your dispatcher to send you back this way."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

All About Dental and Oral HealthNational EconomyTrucks and SUVs

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