1810rdhmer M01

Continuity of care: I matter, you matter, and that’s why I’m involved in your life

Dec. 2, 2018
Lisa Nelson Mergens recounts her personal story of the significance of patient relationships and explains how other dental hygienists can play a significant role in the lives of their patients by providing continuity of care.
Times have changed. Our worlds have become more transient. But we owe it to our patients to provide continuity of care when we can reasonably do so.
Let me tell you my story.

Lisa Nelson Mergens, BS, RDH

Fate. Karma. Kismet. The universe aligning. Call it what you will.

I was driving and needed fuel. For some reason, I pulled into a gas station I had never used, though I had driven past it regularly.

At the pump in front of me was a woman tending to her vehicle. As we went about our business, I noted that she was wearing hospital scrubs. I immediately recognized the logo and commented that it was my hospital system, how much I loved the doctors and staff, and what great care I had received over the years.

Standing directly in front of her now, I was able to look her squarely in the face. My jaw dropped, and I know I startled the heck out of her for a moment as I threw my arms around her.

“Debbie!” I exclaimed, and her puzzled look prompted me to tell her my name. Upon hearing it, recognition dawned. Smiling and hugging me, we both started to tear up.

This nurse was with me for the birth of all three of my children as well as both of my miscarriages. She had gripped my hand and helped me push. She had held my hand and cried with me when I lost two babies, both at 14 weeks. She steadied me as they rushed me in for an emergency cesarean birth that safely delivered my infant daughter who was in distress. She cheered me on as I delivered my final child, now almost 17.

I know as certain as I know my own name that on that day I was set on a path not of my own choosing. The stars had aligned so that I could tell this woman how many times I had thought of her over the years and how important she was in my life and in the lives of my children (though they don’t know it). It was an amazing encounter, and I felt blessed to have the opportunity to let her know I love her and that she is appreciated every single day as I look into my children’s eyes.

To newer hygienists and recent grads, I encourage you to take note of my story. Think back over your career and the relationships you’ve built with your patients. While we might not be delivering someone’s child, we each have a multitude of opportunities to make a difference in the lives of our patients.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when a dental hygienist took a position in an office and stayed there for his or her entire career. Of course, there were exceptions: a spouse transferred jobs or the practice was sold and the new owner didn’t retain the former staff. Most hygienists older than I am enjoyed longevity in their workplaces and careers. But times have changed. Our worlds have become more transient.

There is something to be said about employers and employees becoming less tolerant and quick to fire or quit. I watch with great sadness the decline unfolding before me when it comes to continuity of care. This is not to say it is happening across the board, but it occurs often enough to warrant comment.

Continuity of care means mentioning an early lesion during a head and neck exam with referral to a specialist before it becomes life altering, noting a consistent decline in oral health that motivates your patient to seek a diagnosis from his or her physician, or simply putting down your instruments to hold the hand of your patient while that individual cries over the loss of a spouse, child, or parent. How can you provide this kind of continuity of care? What is your history with your patients?

The fact is, as health-care providers, we matter. When we take on our role, we owe it to our patients to offer them continuity of care when we can reasonably do so. Let’s eschew the roller coaster that managed care has demanded we embrace. Let’s find peaceful resolution to interoffice conflict that has us tossing down our instruments in search of “the perfect practice.”

I’ve got news for you. The perfect practice is a unicorn. It takes as much hard work, determination, and self-actualization to create a long-term working engagement as it does to progress through and graduate from a hygiene program. Let’s consider the gift we have at our literal and figurative fingertips to play a significant role in another person’s life.

I was forced to stop clinical hygiene because of a debilitating case of rheumatoid arthritis. Yet, I can say with absolute certainty that I impacted many of the patients within my care.

Perhaps one day while I am pumping gas, someone will throw his or her arms around me and say, “Thank you!” Should that day never come? Well, that’s all right because in my heart, as a hygienist, I know I was fully engaged with my patients.
And, as a hygienist, I made a difference...and so do you.

Lisa Nelson Mergens, BS, RDH, practiced clinical dental hygiene for 20 years until 2007. She now owns Ascendant Dental Development LLC and spends her time conducting workshops and assisting dentists and dental teams in the areas of communication and leadership. A certified personal coach and trainer, Lisa is pursuing advanced studies in organizational leadership with the intention of obtaining her PhD. When she isn’t lecturing and speaking, she enjoys spending time with her grown children and raising Bernedoodle puppies. Her motto is to always #choosepositivechange.