Talking with Patients - How to Handle "Delicate" Topics
Hygienists spend considerable time with patients and often become quite familiar with their likes, dislikes, family life, work issues, preferences, and other personal topics. While most of us enjoy the warm, friendly atmosphere that being a hygienist can foster - what can we do about a patient who asks us embarrassing questions or broaches difficult subjects? We all know the common sense advice to avoid discussions about politics or religion; but what can we do when a patient wants to talk about these matters? Let's look at a few scenarios:
Joanie is a long-standing patient. She is a mom and works at a computer data firm. During her appointment today she asks you what you think about the upcoming presidential election. She lets it be known that she prefers a candidate that you don't support. She asks you who you plan to vote for in the election. What should you say? While no one would expect a person to totally hide their opinions on important matters, you know that this conversation will be uncomfortable, and more significantly, can do nothing to foster a good professional relationship going forward. After all, your job is to help Joanie maintain her oral health, not get into any type of controversy over politics.
The best solution may be to simply try to divert the question with a “soft” reply and then change the subject. For example: “Well, the election won’t be for several months. I’m still evaluating the candidates. But you know, I’ve been meaning to tell you - I saw in the paper that your daughter made the honor roll. I’m sure you must be very proud of her!” Or, “I have an idea who I will support, but want to take more time to think about it. But I wanted to ask you - have you had a chance to see that movie we were talking about the last time you were here? I haven’t had a chance to go and wondered what you thought about it.”
Marie has been coming to the office for several years and is on a four-times-annually maintenance schedule, so you see her very often. She knows many of the other staff members from her frequent visits as well. One of the dental assistants in the office is in the process of getting a divorce. Marie asks you, “Do you know why Annie and her husband are divorcing? I always thought they were so happy.” Office gossip is a problem, whether it is with another staff person or with a patient. Talking about someone’s personal business can create many issues, the least of which may be hurt feelings. It is also unprofessional. What might you say to Marie? Again, a noncommittal reply may be the best choice. For example: “Well, I know Annie told you she was getting a divorce, but I really don’t know all the particulars. All of us here are just wishing her the best.”
Mrs. Thompson is very active in her church. She is soliciting donations for an associated group that you do not support. When she comes for her appointment today, she asks you to donate. What should you do? Deflecting this type of request can be very tricky. You don’t want to imply that Mrs. Thompson is “wrong,” because all of us have the right to our beliefs and causes, but you don’t want to participate in something that goes against your own beliefs. You might say: “I have several organizations that I support, and I try to contribute to them regularly. So, I have to tell you that my financial contributions for this year are already promised. I’m sorry, but I know you understand.” And then change the subject. “Did you and your husband enjoy the cruise you were talking about going on last time you were here? It sounded wonderful.”
Bill is a stock broker who likes to talk about the “market” and is always up on the latest information. He has just completed extensive restorative work with your dentist and has mentioned several times how expensive he thought the treatment was. During his periodontal maintenance appointment today he tells you that he noticed Dr. Williams has a new car parked in the parking lot. “I guess all of that money I spent on my teeth paid off for the Doc. That is a really expensive car!” While this is not really a question, a request for a comment from you is implied. You might try a light-hearted, but still accurate reply. “Well, let’s just hope that his car gives him as much good service as your beautiful new crowns will!”
Dealing with patients is often a lot more complicated than the already complicated aspect of treating their oral conditions. Unlike a surgeon’s anesthetized patients, our patients are fully awake and full of questions and comments. While we all try to keep the focus on the dental care we are providing, the social facet of our profession cannot be ignored. Being somewhat prepared to respond to “delicate” topics can keep us from being blindsided by certain patient remarks.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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