Relationships are the key

Oct. 1, 2006
When I graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dental Hygiene in 1971, I never imagined that I would still be practicing clinical dental hygiene today.

When I graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dental Hygiene in 1971, I never imagined that I would still be practicing clinical dental hygiene today. I turned to my mother after the ceremony and announced, “This clinical dental hygiene thing is really boring. I’m not going to do this. I’m headed to Texas to get a master’s degree.”

The other day I was chatting with fellow UMKC classmate, Sally Kuklenski, about one of our favorite subjects - clinical dental hygiene. We’re both still practicing and loving it more than ever. Do we practice the same way that we were taught back in the 1960s? Absolutely not! Both of us are taking advantage of the most current technologies available to today’s clinicians. We wear loupes, headlights, have tunable ultrasonic scalers, sit in ergonomic chairs, and use a wide variety of medicaments, products, and protocols that were not even on the drawing board 10 years ago.

Both of us could have easily become bored with the repetitive nature of the dental hygiene treatment plan - a plan that is severely limited by most states’ practice acts. But Sally and I practice with the same central focus. It is all about the patients. They are the reason we practice. Yes, the income is nice and the hours are flexible, but the patients are the real reason why we are not bored and still love what we do 35 years later.

Are Sally and I oddities from a statistical standpoint? Not at all. According to a still-prevailing urban legend, we were supposed to burn out after seven years. By my calculations we are 28 years late.

We discovered the secret years ago: Enjoying dental hygiene is based on enjoying the relationships.

Hygienists all over the planet can gab for hours about the various nuances of our profession. I see them every day on the e-mail list. I know they are on other lists as well. I meet these hygienists at continuing education programs and conferences such as RDH Under One Roof. Dental hygienists who love dental hygiene are everywhere.

During our chat, I told Sally about three remarkable appointments during the past week. Each one was different and each resonated within me the real reason why dental hygiene continues to be such a fascinating profession. It’s all about the relationships that we create and the magic that happens when we touch people’s lives and they touch ours.

My clinical office carefully constructs a schedule that meshes well with writing and traveling. A couple of weeks ago, I scheduled an important business phone call at the end of the clinical day. When I arrived for work that day, I noticed one of my favorite patients, Sandra, had been tacked on to the end of my regular schedule.

Why was Sandra on my schedule? After all, she is retired and can come any time. No one had asked if I could stay later and I hadn’t told my office mates that I had plans after work.

The answer came quickly. Sandra was having unexpected open heart surgery in two days. It had been five months, instead of three, since her last visit. Fortunately, she knew there was a connection between cardiac disease and dental health.

My thoughts immediately shifted from annoyance to how I could best help Sandra prepare for her impending surgery. The phone conference could wait. Sandra has been part of my professional life since I first started practicing. Disrupting biofilm and reducing the bacterial challenge in her oral cavity was the one unique thing I could do for her, and she wanted an appointment with me before her surgery. We parted that afternoon with hugs and best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Elaine, a beautiful, upbeat octogenarian with a gorgeous head full of silvery hair was on my schedule a couple of days later. It had been months

since she had been to the office. Elaine drives in 60 miles from a small town west of Houston. She’s never late for her three-month appointment. But this time she got lost on the way to our office.

I was looking forward to the appointment even though I knew it would be a challenge to scale her teeth (especially since we were getting a late start). I knew Elaine’s husband of 63 years had passed away since her last visit, but I didn’t know she had also broken her leg and been in rehab for three months.

Finally, Elaine arrived smiling and joking about being late, saying, “They tore down all of my landmarks! I couldn’t tell where I was going.” Even though she was reflecting on the journey from her small town, I kept thinking about her life’s landmarks. While many are gone and others rearranged, we’ve provided her dental treatment for years, and, if she has her way, we’ll continue to do so.

Elaine’s appointment was fun. They always are. While I scaled off mountains of deposit, she peppered me with questions about how her teeth were and if there were any problems. I had to laugh. Despite the gingivitis and heavy deposits, this woman is going to take her teeth with her. Elaine is a resilient soul who will start using her power brush more and be back in my chair in three months.

Sometimes you never realize the impact you can have on a patient. Four years ago, I started seeing Lindsey. The visits have been pleasant, the dialogue interactive, focusing on her needs, determining her relative risk, and developing a plan so she’ll have her teeth for her entire lifetime. Lindsey uses a power brush, periodically implements other home-care strategies, and comes in every four months.

During her last visit, Lindsey related that she looks forward to her dental hygiene visits because she finds the easy-to-understand information in our discussions interesting and motivating. Lindsey’s childhood dental experiences left her fearful. As an adult, she avoided dental visits until she joined our practice. According to Lindsey, 99 percent of her fears are now gone.

As soon as she finished her appointment, Lindsey enthusiastically called her mother, who lives in a small town outside of San Antonio. She shared the information we discussed during her visit, making sure that her mother has the most current dental health news. During our last conversation, we talked about pregnancy and dental health, and Lindsey’s plans for starting a family. Lindsey values her dental health, appreciates our care and information, and has taken the term dental disciple to an entirely new level.

Clinicians who focus on the patients are the lucky ones. They find a passion for the profession in taking care of a real person - not just focusing on the tasks or the paycheck. Relationships make our days challenging, amusing, joyous, and, at times, just plain fun and memorable. If you know a Sandra, Elaine or Lindsey in your practice, along with the Joes, Arnolds, and Bills, then you have truly found your clinical comfort zone.

Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH, is an international speaker who 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