Tasks vs. relationships

Aug. 1, 2004
Over the past couple of years, I've had the opportunity to reconnect with a number of my dental hygiene classmates. We've known each other since 1968...

by Anne Nugent Guignon

Over the past couple of years, I've had the opportunity to reconnect with a number of my dental hygiene classmates. We've known each other since 1968, so it's fun to see how everyone is doing. One thing is for sure — even though most of us have put on a few pounds, have a few more lines of distinction on our faces, and constantly struggle with whether or not we want to reveal to the world just how much white hair we really have — we are still the same basic people we were in our 20s.

It's interesting to see how our careers have turned out. Several of my classmates became dentists. Others abandoned their dental hygiene careers due to injury or boredom. Many chose the joys and challenges of full-time motherhood, and some are basking in the joys of being a grandmother. A handful of us received master's degrees, and several use these additional talents and skills in the academic world. We've lost track of a few along the way.

Only a handful of us still practice. I guess this is what happens to a bunch of middle-aged women who have full lives. It is very intriguing, though, to discuss dental hygiene with those who are still in practice. They are my peers. We share the same core education, which by the way, was excellent in its day. All of these women remember that I was a restless student. I wanted more than I thought dental hygiene could ever offer. I remember my classmates as well. They were smart. We were going to change the world. It was the 1970s, the hippie era. We were out to make a difference.

Several weeks ago, one of my classmates emailed me. She had been experiencing numbness, tingling, burning, and pain in her back, hip, leg, and right foot for some time. She thought her operator chair was the culprit and wanted information about ergonomic alternatives. While I was flattered that she got in touch with me, the fact that she was in pain bothered me. Realizing her question was too broad for an email, I offered to contact her by phone to get more details. This additional information would allow me to give her better advice.

Once we connected by phone, we covered all of her questions and concerns regarding a chair and her impending worker's compensation claim. As usual, the conversation drifted to clinical hygiene. When we saw each other last year, she told me she wanted out of clinical practice. I asked her how things were going now. Her disenchantment still covered her like a big, wet blanket.

We started talking about how differently we each felt about clinical practice. After my initial frustration with reconciling my need for mental stimulation and clinical practice, I amazed myself and fell in love with dental hygiene. Her frustration, on the other hand, escalated from her very first day in practice. What was the key difference? From the time she graduated, she clearly understood the time crunch in a real world office. While she knew that it was her obligation to provide an outstanding patient service — a goal we should all strive for — my classmate felt that her first focus must be to complete a series of tasks. Developing a relationship with the patient had to come later.

My approach has been very different. From my first day, the patient relationship has seemed to be the key. From my point of view, if there is not a relationship, then there is nothing to build upon. I don't think either approach is wrong. Nevertheless, focusing on the number of tasks that we complete every day cheats us and our patients out of a relationship that can have positive effects for a lifetime for all parties involved.

Years ago, during a break at a continuing-education course, everyone was talking about what they did at work every day. It was litany after litany of how many prophies, fluoride treatments, and sets of bitewings. This was a stunning revelation. My immediate thought was, how boring! These hygienists were describing the boring clinical dental hygiene practice trap that I had learned to avoid and fear.

It was hard to comprehend that so many dental hygiene professionals felt this was how they spent their day. Apparently, my focus was on relationships, not tasks. Even if the office circumstances were less than ideal, patients were the key to feeling professionally fulfilled. This may be the reason that I not only survived, but I also enjoyed full-time clinical practice for so many years. Now, I treasure the opportunity to continue to interact with patients. I still love seeing their eyes light up when they "get it" — whatever the "it" is at a particular moment.

Several weeks ago, I had an experience that proves the power of the relationship. Houston was experiencing one of its legendary downpours. The sky was dark and areas around the city were experiencing minor flooding. One of my favorite patients shuffled in, umbrella in hand, and proudly announced that he had arrived. He was determined to let me know that despite the nasty weather, he came ... because his appointment was with me. We go way back. I started treating him in 1972. The other hygienists are very capable of treating him just as well, but this patient values the relationship and was willing to make the effort to keep his appointment.

Let's get back to the conversation with my classmate. She wished aloud that more patients valued what she has to offer. Like many seasoned hygienists, patients have followed my classmate throughout her career. She has experienced the joy of the patient relationship, but not often enough. When a patient listens and follows her advice, she feels professionally fulfilled.

The conversation shifted to building relationships and letting the task assume less importance. It is very difficult to change habits completely, but it is possible to modify one's point of view. The result can be miraculous. Every step we take toward positive change can bring us closer to creating our own professional comfort zone where we can receive the reward of professional fulfillment that we deserve every time we treat a patient.

Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH, is an international speaker, has published numerous articles, and authored several textbook chapters. Her popular programs include ergonomics, patient comfort, burnout, and advanced diagnostics and therapeutics. Recipient of the 2004 Mentor of the Year Award, Anne is an ADHA member and has practiced clinical dental hygiene in Houston, Texas, since 1971. You can reach her at [email protected] or (713) 974-4540 and her Web site is www.ergosonics.com.