Three ways hygienists rip off their patients

Sept. 26, 2008
The director of RDH eVillage explains three ways to prevent ripping off patients who purchase our services, while warding off the "gremlins" we blame for burnout and not reaching our full potential.

I decided to begin with an abrupt title, and then explain. Quite a few clinical hygienists complain that they are burned out and want to seek alternative careers. Many complain about employer-dentists doing things that I thought had been eliminated a long time ago. I thought the entire hygiene community had discovered the true meaning of longevity in clinical practice and had bypassed the whiners. I guess I was wrong.

Through many discussions and e-mails I now realize that wonderful hygiene opportunities exist, and the great news is that there is still a pot of gold at the end of the hygiene rainbow. This article explains three ways to prevent ripping off patients who purchase our services, while warding off the "gremlins" we blame for burnout and not reaching our full potential.

Rip Off No.1

Listening to our gremlins vs. focusing on our patients. We can all list the reasons for burnout. These often begin with "I can't," or "The doctor won't let me." These statements become self-fulfilling prophecies, and they are how we limit ourselves. This damaging practice has many names: gremlins, negative self-talk, saboteur, and inner critic, to name a few. But they all describe the same thing — an internal voice that tells us we can't be successful. As oral wellness professionals, our goal is to help patients implement positive lifestyle changes. If we spend our clinical days listening to the muck in our minds, are we really being mindful and present for our patients?

When you hear your inner voice complain, pause for a moment. Examine what's happening around you and inside you. Acknowledge that your attention has drifted from being patient-focused to being self-focused. When you find your mind wandering into the negative, acknowledge that you have slithered into the negative zone, a zone that will drain you of your energy and enthusiasm for your patient's care and your chosen profession. Bring yourself back to the present and realize where you are and what you are doing. Breathe and refocus your inner voice to the patient sitting in your chair. By focusing your complete attention on the patient, you will feel in control of your thoughts and emotions. You'll bring back the positive power you have as a provider, and lose the negativity that was trying to take over your thoughts.

Rip Off #2Lack of mindfulness. Our patients deserve our full attention. Being mindful means slowing down and paying full attention. It's a non-judgmental awareness of what is happening in the present. When hygienists are distracted, or walk around in automatic pilot, patients are being ripped off. They're not getting the full attention they deserve from their oral health care provider. Trying to do 12 things at once will make you lose a conversation and degrade the quality of your inquiries with patients. Patients sense your disconnect and may postpone or not schedule treatment. People can sense when someone isn't paying attention. How many times have you continued a conversation even though a patient has walked into the reception area? Or have you kept a patient waiting while you were on your cell phone or drinking coffee? Here's the reverse. Remember when you were not listened to or were half-heartedly acknowledged? How did that make you feel, and what was the ultimate outcome of the situation?

Many times when you use your clinical skills, especially if you have been in the profession for a while, you may think about all you have to do during the workday (or after work) instead of being true with your patient's care. Or you may worry about the next patient or whether the doctor will keep you waiting for the patient's exam. Some hygienists ease the lack of mindful with unnecessary chatter.

I define unnecessary chatter as "non-hygienese," which is any discussion that does not move a patient toward health. One tool that redirects mindless chatter is a sign that reads W.A.I.T. — Why Am I Talking? Place it where it can be seen. We all have the ability to slow down, focus on our patients and be mindful. This practice will yield great returns in building relationships with patients and warding off the gremlins of the daily routine.

Rip Off No. 3

When hygienists do not hold their patients in positive regard. As I was defining mindfulness, I used the word "non-judgment." Holding patients in positive regard means that we accept them and their choices, and we accept them right where they are. The judgment, criticism, or contempt many hygienists hold for their "non-flossers," "repeat failures," "non-compliant" or "PIA" patients prevents them from truly championing patients' strengths and recognizing what they're doing right for their oral health. We focus on what is wrong, such as if they don't floss, or they smoke, or they don't brush with a power brush, or they never schedule restorative or periodontal treatment, I could go on and on. With these reluctant patients, we may feel they don't care about their oral health, and we wonder why they don't do what we tell them to do. After all, "I'm the expert and they should listen to me." Lastly, when we judge and disrespect our patients, we may justify gossiping about them. This is a behavior polar opposite of positive regard.

We need to believe that regardless of where they are, relationships with our patients must be based on self-esteem and support of their accomplishments, even if we perceive the accomplishment as small. Unfailing positive regard is the key to establishing rapport and trust. With this, our patients will move forward with treatment and view dental hygienists as professionals.

Acknowledging our gremlins, refocusing on our patients, and being mindful and holding our patients in positive regard are only three examples of behavioral practices that can ward off professional burnout while creating better results with our patients. If these qualities are present in relationships with our patients (and I encourage you to practice them outside the office), there is no limit to how productive and fulfilling dental hygiene can be.

Kristine A. Hodsdon RDH, BS
Director, RDH eVillage

Contact Kristine at [email protected] for information about her newest "well-being" and "coaching for behavioral change" CE programs.