The Handshake Connection

Here is a question for practicing RDHs who interact daily with patients in the clinical setting. Have you considered extending your hand in greeting to introduce yourself when you first connect with the patient?

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by Eileen Morrissey, RDH, MS

Here is a question for practicing RDHs who interact daily with patients in the clinical setting. Have you considered extending your hand in greeting to introduce yourself when you first connect with the patient? I never did so in the past, but now it's part of my standard operating protocol.

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Please do not misunderstand me. I have always been warm and friendly, and I routinely introduced myself to patients who did not know me. It just never occurred to me to make the effort to shake any person's hand. Six years ago, I was a part-time clinical dental hygienist in the office of a periodontist, Dr. Anthony "Buck" Di Cesare of Red Bank, N.J. He approached me one day and asked, "Eileen, what do you think about trying to shake hands regularly with patients?" We were trying to raise the service bar on our routine recall visits.

Frankly, I thought the idea was a bit weird. I had a marketing role in the practice and extended my hand on a regular basis in business interactions with those whom I came in contact. Somehow, though, I was having a problem (it's all about pre-disposed mindset) to transitioning over to doing the same thing in the clinical arena.

Thankfully, yours truly is open-minded. (Are you?) So I told Dr. Di Cesare I would give it a try. Since many patients were meeting me for the first time, I essentially had to introduce myself to every patient. I would retrieve the patient from the reception area, escort her to my treatment room, invite her to sit down, bib her, look her directly in the eye with a big smile on my face, and then proceed to shake her hand. I said, "Mrs. Smith, I'm Eileen. I'll be your hygienist today." The reactions suggested surprise, which was immediately followed by appreciation. It quickly became clear to me that no hygienists in the practice had ever done this before.

Positive energy

By the second day of the "handshake program," I was hooked. Why? Because of the phenomenal connection achieved from the instant I shook a patient's hand. You have to experience this to know what I'm talking about. There is warmth, and then there is that much more warmth. How do I explain this? The positive energy that I normally exude travels from my heart through my hand, and connects to the patient's heart, through her hand.

If this sounds too "New Age" for you, I ask only that you try it, so that you might hopefully glean an understanding. Furthermore, it quickly became clear that I was raising the service factor up one notch. I was representing myself and the practice with a tad more polish, a little more class. In a nutshell, I was making an impression, as well as a connection. It was the best thing I could have done.

To this day in the clinical dental hygiene setting, I introduce myself to patients at every visit. And I reintroduce myself when I see them at subsequent visits. (Don't presume that because you introduced yourself once, you are automatically remembered.) And I always extend my hand in greeting to connect with them.

I present this concept to hygienists as well as all clinicians in my workshops and in my lectures. The reaction is typically this: "No thanks, not interested." Hygienists come up with every reason for why they don't need to do it. One declared that the patients in her practice are the equivalent of animals, and that her preference is to "maintain a professional distance." Her boss agreed with her! Another hygienist said that she didn't want to touch people any more than she had to. A third dental hygiene colleague told me, "Look, Eileen, I give in so many ways. It's just not necessary for me to do anything more than what I already do." The overwhelming majority of hygienists react the way I did when I was first presented with the idea. The collective group sentiment? "I'd feel weird shaking hands. I'm just not comfortable with the idea."

Hands vs. hugs

In fairness, I'll accept the comment that came from one world-class hygienist. She said, "Eileen, I don't shake hands. I hug!"

To the hygienists who know their patients and have been seeing the same faces for numerous years, part of me understands why you would feel awkward introducing yourself and extending your hand at this phase in your relationship. Still, you get new patients in your practice, and you could initiate this protocol with them. With patients you already know, if you choose, you could extend your hand as a gesture to close the visit, to thank those patients for having come in to see you that day. The point is, if you want to do this, you can find a way to make the handshake connection a part of your protocol.

Someone great once said, "If I keep doing what I always do, I'm going to get what I always get." How many of us keep trudging along through life with our pre-disposed mindsets, so certain that the way we have always been doing things is the only way?

Eye contact, a smile, a handshake, warm words ... There is no clinical setting that I frequent in any other aspect of my health care where an effort of this nature is made to provide me, a patient, with this kind of connection. Warm, caring, and professional are words I like to think of to describe the women (and men) who comprise dental hygiene. How about if we collectively make the effort to distinguish ourselves by making this small gesture? I promise, it will come back tenfold.

Eileen Morrissey, RDH, MS, is a dental practice management consultant in Perrineville, N.J. Currently, she lectures, writes, and provides customized workshops for doctors and their staffs. She can be reached at (732) 446-1461 or eemorrissey@aol.com

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