Dental Hygienists: Oral Health Warriors on Behalf of Our Patients

One of the great things about dentistry is the consistent opportunity we have to help people along their path to greater oral health and overall wellness. The most effective way to guide patients along the way is to first have an established relationship with them.

A long-time friend of mine who is 57 years young has seen two dentists in her lifetime: her pediatric dentist who had to fire her as a patient at the age of 26 because she no longer fit in her dentist’s chair, and the dentist who has seen her every six months for the past 31 years! And while the relationship with her dentist is now – after all of these years – more like the fondness and respect shared by a brother and sister, it is the relationship she has with her hygienist that is especially meaningful to her.

My friend’s experience tickles me and reminds me of the cherished relationships I had with patients when I sat chairside as a dental hygienist. Although always professional, I began to take an active interest in my patients’ overall health and well-being, which dovetailed into my training as a hygienist and later as I pursued my master’s in health promotion and my doctorate in holistic nutrition.

As the years have ticked by, I’ve learned that before a procedure is recommended to a patient that crucial relationship between health care provider and patient has to be well established. If the relationship is in place, then it’s much easier, more effective and the treatment acceptance rate is much higher when it comes time to share the benefits of the product or service with the patient.

In today’s transparent environment, patients want to understand how the procedure will benefit them, what the downside is if they don’t go forward with the recommended treatment plan and how much it’s going to cost. It is critical that the clinician (doctor, hygienist or clinical assistant) answer the WHY, the WHAT FOR and the HOW COME for patients. It’s not enough to say, “This will be great for you …” Today’s patients, managing personal budgets in our new financial reality, are more selective about where they spend their limited resources (time and money) and what they spend them on. Answering the WHY, WHAT FOR and HOW COME for the patient is essential to the success of treatment acceptance.

Classic health promotion follows the Health Belief Model (HBM). This model is a guide to one’s readiness to move forward with health care. The HBM is broken down easily:

  1. The patient understands and accepts that they are susceptible to disease.
  2. If they are susceptible, what is the severity of the disease?
  3. How does the patient justify the investment of the precious resources of time and money, understanding the recommended treatment will have a positive impact on their overall well-being?

Clearly, if the patient doesn’t have a clear understanding of the benefits of care, they won’t accept the course of action, and treatment acceptance has everything to do with whether or not they trust and value the person recommending the action plan!

A quick rule of thumb suggests that 40-70% of the doctor’s restorative and elective dentistry should come directly from the hygiene department. Is this the case in your practice?

Too often the role of the dental hygienist is focused on the periodontal needs of the patient, with the restorative needs left for the doctor to address. On the other hand, the same is true of dentists focusing entirely on the restorative and function aspects of patient care, with little attention being paid to the periodontal status of the patient in the chair.

Building appropriate, professional relationships with our patients is the cornerstone for creating a successful practice. Establishing trust with our patients is critical, and it takes time. Remember my friend and her long-standing relationship with her hygienist?

Dental hygienists are in a unique position in the health care industry because so often, they are the most consistent and frequent relationship patients have with a provider. This translates into amazing opportunities to foster trust and anchor relationships with patients. A well-trained hygienist has the potential to influence patients to take ownership of their overall health and accept treatment when the benefits are clearly articulated.

Leveraging the often well-established relationships hygienists have with our patients is core to an effective internal marketing plan – where we showcase the restorative and elective services to our active patients. Having a solid plan for showcasing our restorative and elective services to existing patients creates momentum in a practice and takes the pressure off  always having to market to new patients. Don’t misunderstand, new patients are the lifeblood of any practice; however, those trusting, valued relationships take time. As those relationships are being developed, seize the opportunity to elevate internal marketing efforts with established patients. Hygienists are your front line with existing patients and can play a key role in elevating the success of your practice.

When my friend smiles – which is often – I am reminded that her overall good health and beautiful smile is partially the result of the relationship she has, and the faith she puts in the professional opinions of the two health care providers she’s seen every six months for 31 years!