Replacing Mrs. Right/Mr. Wrong

May 1, 2008
When filling the shoes of the perfect hygienist, or replacing a fired employee, it's important to maintain a sense of professionalism.

When filling the shoes of the perfect hygienist, or replacing a fired employee, it's important to maintain a sense of professionalism.

by Suzanne Hubbard, RDH

After hygiene school, I had the wonderful opportunity of working as a temporary employee in the profession. I traveled to different offices, met many people, and had experiences that were unique and exciting. I eventually learned that no two offices are the same! In fact, offices differ on many levels.

It was challenging at times — getting used to different instruments, where to find equipment in a pinch, how the foot pedals work and what buttons do work on chairs, and how each doctor prioritizes treatment. However, the toughest challenge is filling in for an employee. Often, I filled in for hygienists who were on vacation, maternity leave, or out sick. Patients knew that at the next appointment their familiar hygienist would be back.

However, I have had assignments where I replaced a retiring hygienist after many years of dedicated service. I've had other assignments where I've replaced a hygienist who was fired. It's hard to fill the shoes in replacing the hygienist with impeccable service, dedication, and affinity to their patients and to dental staff. Patients become familiar with "their" hygienist. A loyal friendship is hard to replace. Patients become accustomed to their hygienist's touch, sense of humor, personality, and the way they make them feel about themselves and their oral care.

Replacing Mrs. Right

Taking over can be a daunting task for both the hygienist and patient. The dance can be awkward, frustrating, and time consuming. The patient may go through a period of grieving as the hygienist has often become a mentor, as well as a friend.

I've found that several approaches work best when filling in or replacing Mrs. Right.

First, don't take anything personally. The first few months are hard! The efforts to build a comfortable rapport with patients can be overwhelming. Instead of taking things personally ("I can't compete with Mrs. Right, I can't compare...), you feel a sense of pride about your profession ("There goes a hygienist who was successful among patients and staff"). Learn from the previous hygienist by noting what made her successful in the eyes of patients and staff. Ask the staff for feedback and tell the patient, "I know Mrs. Right was your hygienist for many years. I want to make sure that we continue the good care you receive. If there is anything that I can do to make the transition easier for you, please let me know."

This opens the line of communication, and allows the patient to have some involvement in their care. It also makes the patient feel you care that this may be a difficult transition.

Secondly, give yourself a break. It's easy to assume that all patients are going to have some difficulty adjusting. In my experience, many patients are not even aware that a transition has been made in the dental hygiene operatory they are visiting. Some personalities can handle transition better than others.

More often, it's the people who have a hard time with change, or who've had a bad dental experience that are the toughest ones to convince that the transition can be smooth. In time, those patients usually become your biggest supporters!

Replacing Mr. Wrong

Tougher still is replacing the hygienist who was fired, replacing Mr. Wrong. A sense of professionalism in your approach is very important in both situations. With Mrs. Right, never point out mistakes that were made by the previous hygienist ("Yes, she may have been great, but she never ...").

In the case of Mr. Wrong, regardless of the reason why a hygienist was laid off or fired, it is important that the integrity of the former hygienist be upheld not only for the office, but also for the profession. I've been in offices where hygienists criticize the work of another hygienist ("She never probes; she always leaves calculus.").

When replacing a hygienist whose skills may not be up to our expectations, it is critical that this opinion not be passed on to the patient. In my experience some of the questions often asked are:

  • "Why is the cleaning taking longer?"
  • "Why weren't probings done before?"
  • "I need scaling and root planing? Why have I never been told this before?"

Politely inform the patient that a thorough cleaning is in order, and place the necessity for treatment solely on current clinical assessments.

Never blame the former hygienist; unfortunately, Mr. Wrong is not there to defend his clinical judgment. Judging the past hygienist and his/her skills is not productive! While it is easy to establish blame on a past course of action, it is even easier to work in the moment, diverting the patient's attention to what needs to be done toward future health.

When replacing a hygienist, patients may initially question the hygienist's authority. However, in time, a rapport will develop and trust will naturally follow.

In addition, patients are often curious as to why Mrs. Right/ Mr. Wrong left, or where they may reach him/her, or in what office the hygienist is now working. Again, maintain professionalism. It is important that the information not be passed on to the patient, replying simply that Mrs. Right/Mr. Wrong is no longer working at the office.

Whether we are replacing Mrs. Right or Mr. Wrong, it is important that we continue to be supporters of this great profession. Integrity and professionalism will carry us a long way in filling in for all types and sizes of shoes (and there are many). We must always remember that staff and our patients are looking to us as examples of our profession. Taking over for any hygienist can be challenging; however, in the end, the benefits and rewards are innumerous.

Suzanne Hubbard, RDH, works in Greeley, Colo., at GB Dental Clinic.