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What to do when politics and racial tension conversations enter the op

Dec. 3, 2020
When patients discuss uncomfortable topics, or worse yet, say hateful things, it creates an unhealthy atmosphere for everyone. It can also affect the practice’s bottom line. Tesha J. Cagle, RDH, PHDHP, CDP, shows us how to deal with these situations.

While they were once considered taboo topics of conversation, politics and racial tensions are now being discussed freely. The growing disdain for political correctness, the sense of isolation due to limitations in social interactions, and the comfort our patients feel with us oftentimes place us in the position of friend, confidant, sounding board, and involuntary advocate.

As an African American provider, my skin tone has placed me in the midst of questioning and unsought, coerced conversations. However, I have made it my job to understand the struggles of society, cultural differences, and the role they play in our relatively formed opinions of others. In doing so, I realize that this might not be your calling, and you might just want to navigate through your day in dentistry unscathed by what plagues the outside world.

This article will help you develop a personalized response to avert these unwanted conversations.

Celebrate diversity

While our patients may have very strong stances on hot-topic issues, no matter how you might be opposed to their expressed stance, if it is not disrespectfully expressed, you don’t have to respond in direct opposition. Stand on the side of valuing all opinions. Example: “I think it’s beautiful that we can live in a country where you can express your opinion on things that you feel passionate about without fear of persecution. One could only hope that everyone can someday feel that same freedom. While I applaud your freedom, we only have a limited amount of time together. So can I have a moment to talk about something that I am really passionate about? Dentistry.” Cheesy, I know, but it works. You can insert personalization anywhere.

Explain that the office is your refuge

While our patients come to us seeking help and understanding in many capacities, political guidance should not be one of them. In response to a patient’s political rant, respond with: “You know, that’s what I love about what I do. I get to come here and do great work based on scientific research. There’s little to no gray area in that. I love coming into work and escaping from it all. I hope my patients consider our peaceful environment an escape for them as well. Go ahead and relax. I’m going to lay you back.” This is a slightly smoother approach, with room to make it your own.

Address hate directly and swiftly

Many offices are unaware or ignore the fact that they are ultimately responsible for the work environment of their employees. If hate speech is allowed in your office, you can be accused of having a hostile work environment. Hate speech from a patient, even when not directed at a specific person, can be witnessed by staff and other patients who might not appear to be in the protected classes under the EEOC, but very well might have close relatives within those protected classes or may be advocates or allies. While you may lose revenue by dismissing a patient from the practice, the loss would be far less than the cost of legal defense or the cost of employee turnover. It may be equal to the loss of the patient in the next op who heard you openly allow hate speech and secretly vows never to return to your office. Contact the appropriate administrative staff and have the patient dismissed. Apologize to the staff and patients present or within possible earshot of the incident, and let them know the office is working on finding a more suitable dental home for that patient.

While we navigate through these troubling times, it is my hope that we can all do so with grace and integrity. I hope you can utilize this information to redirect politics and inappropriate speech out of the op so we can all focus on what we do best, save teeth and improve overall health. Stay safe, stay sane, and be well.

Tesha J. Cagle, RDH, PHDHP, CDP, aka the “Dental Diversity Diva,” was born in Trenton, NJ, where she and her two sisters were the first African American children to integrate a small Catholic school. At the age of five, she was already keenly aware of her race and how it played a role in how she was treated. With 10 years’ experience as a dental hygienist and a diversity certification, she wants to ensure that the dental community is more inclusive and accepting of different cultures. Her goals are to reduce racial, gender, sexuality, age, and disability bias in the hiring process; minimize tensions and incidents of harassment in the office; and increase patients’ comfort and confidence in their providers’ cultural sensitivity. All inquiries about in-office and virtual diversity training can be submitted through www.dentaldiversitydiva.com or email at [email protected].