It's about the relationship, silly: Dental appointments are supposed to be pleasant

March 13, 2015
I was thinking recently about patient relationships. How many of your patients do you truly know well? How many of them allow you to know them well?


I was thinking recently about patient relationships. How many of your patients do you truly know well? How many of them allow you to know them well?

I looked at my schedule one morning, realizing that I had a day where 75% of the patients I was treating knew me well enough to ask about my personal life, and delight in bringing me up-to-date on theirs. The other 25% I might have treated, but they came in to just close their eyes and relax. With these patients, the getting to know you process may take more years of hygiene visits to unfold. Then there are those patients who want to keep matters strictly clinical business, and that's OK too.

It's easy to forget just how vulnerable it may be for patients to open their mouths to us. It's a highly personal experience and not one that is necessarily a vantage point of comfort for the person. I try never to lose sight of this because I believe it may be a reason some are less likely to let us get to know them.


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I don't look forward to running into patients when I'm out and about. That's because I know there's a good chance I'll recognize the face, but that's as far as it goes. My enthusiastic greeting won't be personalized because I just don't remember the patient's name, darn it!

I've spent almost eight years in the same practice, and typically when I see a name, I can visualize the person. What I am applauding so many RDHs for today is this - put us at chairside with our patients and something mystical happens. We sit next to them, and as if by magic, the conversation we shared with them six months earlier comes back to us. Details, and I mean all sorts of minuscule details, are resurrected as if the exchange took place yesterday. Patients look at me as if I am crazy. "How can you possibly remember this, Eileen?"

Note: I keep no chart notes for personal details. I only keep clinical notes, mind you! Does this sound familiar to many of you dental hygienists in private practice?

What is this amazing trait that so many hygienists possess? We realize that everything is truly about the relationship. But here's a word to the wise if remembering details does not come easily to you - why not keep track of a few milestones within the patient record? You build patient trust when you develop a more intimate relationship with them. When there is more trust, there is increased chance for compliance, whether that translates into improved home care or treatment plan acceptance.

Patients who walk into the practice where I work walk into our family. It's a small world in Hamilton, N.J. Everyone is related to or knows someone who is connected to another patient. This is food for thought to reinforce in your practices. Dr. Cifelli astounds me in how he is able to remember all these connections, and our assistant, Judy, is amazing at it as well.

Patients report that they love coming to see us because they feel so comfortable, and catching up with us is a welcome distraction to whatever services we're providing in their mouths. As clinicians, we may get psyched about their tissues after debridement, or the superb placement and restorative element of a recent implant, but our patients usually don't get that excited. In general, as long as the dentistry functions, looks good, and the services cause no discomfort, having a pleasant visit is more important to most patients.

Joyful patient relationships go a long way in reaping the rewards of our work. If it were simply about making teeth smooth and educating patients, it could all get old quickly. It's the person connected to each mouth who we know and interact with that is special to me. Otherwise, we're reduced to technicians. This is the lament that we hear from many dental hygienists who are not given enough time during each appointment to foster patient relationships. I recognize how fortunate I am to be in a practice that realizes the importance of the time needed to develop relationships.

Onward we go; it is in our hearts' core... RDH

EILEEN MORRISSEY, RDH, MS, is a practicing clinician, speaker, and writer. She is an adjunct dental hygiene faculty member at Burlington County College. Eileen offers CE forums to doctors, hygienists, and their teams. Reach her at [email protected] or 609-259-8008. Visit her website at