A Sad Story with a Happy Ending
As a hygienist, I have had patients tell me amazingly personal things about themselves. It is surprising that with my instruments in their mouths for the better part of an hour, they are able to express so many thoughts and emotions to me. I have had patients burst into tears, recount fights with family members, and even confide secret wedding plans! I have always considered their statements to be confidential, but am sometimes a little bewildered as to what I should say in response to their revelations. Typically I try to look for a positive comment, but I think that many times they just want someone to listen.
A while back a new patient arrived at our office who stressed my ability to respond in a positive way. Since we did not have a mutual history, I didn't really know what to say during our initial conversation - but eventually we both found a way to land on solid footing. Here is what happened:
Mrs. Patient came to our office at the suggestion of a co-worker of hers. While going over her medical history it was evident that she had more than her share of medical problems. Her demeanor was combative. For first time patients we typically take a full mouth series of radiographs and full mouth perio charting along with an adult prophy and dentist's exam. If a patient arrives who needs more than a standard prophy, we perform whatever service can be accomplished during the time period, along with a detailed explanation of what actually needs to be done. An estimate is prepared for restorative and perio services and is presented by front desk staff at the end of the appointment.
Before she had even settled into the chair, Mrs. Patient told me that she hates dentists and has had terrible experiences in the past with hygienists who hurt her. She expressed that her previous dentist just wanted money and that she didn't trust the profession as a whole. She told me that she could not understand how anyone could scrape people's teeth for a living and suggested that anyone who would do such a thing must have a mean streak and enjoy the chance to hurt someone!
I was pretty shocked. I felt attacked, demeaned, and frankly, angry. My usual explanations about what we would be accomplishing at this first appointment seemed weak and inappropriate. Not really knowing what else to do, I told her that we would be doing our best not to hurt her, and that I would be starting with her radiographs. When I placed the sensor in her mouth she pushed my hand away and told me “that thing is too big” and that she “couldn’t stand to have it in her mouth.” Her facial expression reminded me of someone with road rage on the highway.
I took the sensor away and sat down in my operator chair at her eye level. I was actually shaking in the face from all of this hostility. I decided to try something different. I took her hand in my two hands and said as sincerely as I could: “You have had some horrible experiences with dentistry and expect the same will happen here. I am so sorry that you have had to put up with so much. It just isn’t right.”
Tears filled her eyes and she replied in a much softer voice, “I have been through so much lately. I am at my wit’s end.”
I told her again how sorry I was for her trouble. And then she started telling me about her life. She had recently become a widow after her husband was very ill for a long time. She described how heartbroken she was that he had to suffer for so long, and she expressed her anger at the entire situation. She told me about her long lonely nights and her sorrow at having to face the rest of her life alone. I listened to her and didn't say much. We were just two people talking about one of the hardest things a person might have to face in this world.
After a while I got her some tissues and a cup of water, and I asked her why she had decided to come to the dentist at this time. She told me that she knew she had a lot of dental problems, but had not cared about herself much over the previous few years while caring for her husband. Her daughters had encouraged her to have her teeth looked at, and her co-worker had told her about us. So - she decided to give our office a try. I told her that we would all do our best to take good care of her and thanked her for giving us a chance.
Not much dentistry was accomplished during this appointment, but I was able to take her x-rays and the dentist was able to complete a thorough exam. I rescheduled her for perio charting and a prophy, as it turned out that was all she required on my end. However, it was discovered that Mrs. Patient had extensive restorative needs. She decided to have all of the treatment completed, and during her future appointments she never expressed the negative, combative emotions she showed during her first visit.
I have two points with this story. First impressions can be absolutely wrong, and dentistry is often more than just restorative treatment and perio care. A person who seems to be “on the attack” may have other issues that are not really about the dentist, the hygienist, or the office. Sometimes taking a moment to respond as a human being can make all the difference.
An ability to make connections with patients is a valuable attribute for anyone working in dentistry. From the front desk staff to the dentist, when patients feel that you have their best interests at heart they will tend to accept your suggestions more readily. That is good for patients, in that they receive the treatment they need, and for the office, in that it is good for the financial bottom line.
Carol Tekavec RDH is the director of Hygiene for McKenzie Management. Carol can improve your hygiene department in just one day of training “in your office.” Interested in knowing more about how to improve your hygiene department? Email email@example.com.
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