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When I go in for my checkups and cleanings, I always count on a pleasant conversation with my hygienist about kids, school and vacations. You know, pleasant but innocuous topics that are cheery and amicable. Then we go over the checklist: floss more, try this rinse, next appointment. Done.
I never really thought it could be much different, but I recently heard the views of hygienists who consider that chairside time with the patient as more than simply routine or idle chatter.
How does your staff weigh in?
With help from Trisha O’Hehir, editorial director for the magazine Hygienetown and its online counterpart, a group of hygienists weighed in on what they talk about with patients – and why. Though several said they stick with pretty safe subjects, others spoke of their roles as “sounding boards” for patients who are perhaps working through issues – physical and otherwise – that could affect their overall health.
Hygienetown manages an online message board for discussion among registered users, and the site is designed for use by registered dental hygienists.
Users of this forum agreed that some of the subjects discussed in their offices could get fairly personal: a patient’s battle with cancer, a hygienist’s struggle as a spouse recovered from surgery, motives for cosmetic surgery. These hygienists believed they were not only building a stronger patient relationship, but also playing a vital part in helping a patient navigate confusing or trying times, even if it were only by lending an empathic ear.
There is no formal instruction on chairside discussions, per se, during training, said Sue Nierstheimer, a professor and chair of the dental hygiene program at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, though she said patient communication is a thread throughout the program. Once in the working world, she agreed, hygienists draw on common sense and work experience to set the tone and direction for conversations.
One hygienist posting on the Hygienetown message board said that once she covered the oral health script, she opened the floor to the patient. “My operatory was like them coming to see a psychologist. If it was on their mind and they wanted to discuss it, we talked about it,” adding that the interaction is why she entered the profession in the first place.
Another hygienist to post a response said she gleans even more from some patient visits. Known also as the manager of a service organization for her local township, her conversations during a cleaning can sometimes touch on hot topics around town. “I state the facts and get their opinions; this helps me help my community and lets them vent about things they see that they want changed,” the hygienist related.
There’s another view.
“I do not agree with a lot of conversation on a personal level, since I think as care providers we have an obligation (to share) info with patients regarding making them healthier,” said a third hygienist to weigh in.
But building and nurturing patient relationships drives other hygienists. Two Hygienetown posters said stronger bonds carry over to improved oral care.
“A huge patient satisfier is making a personal connection,” wrote one of the hygienists. “It is what makes them feel that you are treating them as a human being, care about them as a person, and understand a little about who they are. It also breeds loyalty and trust.”
She suggested taking a few minutes after a visit to jot down some personal notes about a patient: children, pets, important events. “Watch their face light up — and maybe a bit of anxiety go down — when you ask about them and the personal connection you made three to six months later. I think as long as the topic doesn't cross professional boundaries that can be construed as sexual harassment or flirtatious in nature, understanding what drives and motivates your patients through personal conversations can really help with absorption and acceptance of the clinical conversations you share.”
“It doesn't matter what we discuss,” wrote another hygienist on Hygienetown. “What matters to me is the outcome going to help their self esteem. This goes for the dental-related topics also. I have found that the more care my patients take of their teeth, the more they care about other aspects of their lives. The two are directly related and the difference is always evident and profound on the next appointment.
“We are in the business of treating people, not just their teeth,” she continued. “If I can make someone’s life better by listening to what they need to share and I can offer an outside unbiased opinion, then my door is always open. Sometimes you need to talk to someone with an unbiased opinion, who will just let you talk and not try to sway you one way or another. Many times we can be that person.”
A tradition of working for the dental profession. The Chicago Dental Society was organized in 1864 and incorporated in 1878. The objective of the Chicago Dental Society is to encourage the improvement of the health of the public, to promote the art and science of dentistry and to represent the intrest of the members of the profession and the public that it serves.
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