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Please allow me to introduce myself: A handshake helps solidify a good meeting with a dental patient

Feb. 21, 2017
Eileen Morrissey, RDH, discusses tips for developing a strong relationship with a dental patient.

By Eileen Morrissey, RDH, MS

Yesterday, I treated a patient whom I have seen seven times over the past nine years. He has been cared for by both of the two hygienists in the practice. He is a distinguished professor in his mid 50s. Perhaps I am flattering myself, but I thought I had treated him with enough frequency that he would remember my name. I therefore neglected (this time) to reintroduce myself. While my relationship with him is very professional, we have engaged in small talk about his family and career on numerous patient appointments.

Nonetheless, at the close of yesterday's visit, he thanked me, extended his hand to shake mine, and said: "You know, I don't even know your name." Shocker for me! I apologized for not reintroducing myself at the start of the appointment and then proceeded to do so, reiterating how I had always enjoyed seeing him throughout the past decade. Hence the theme of today's column and some mea culpa on my part about how important it is never to assume.

Let me say first that this would be moot if I wore a nametag, or had my name monogrammed on my lab coat. Guilty as charged, and the events of yesterday have me determined to address this. Mind you, when I see a new patient, or one that I have treated only a few times or not recently, I always state my name.

Getting back to my visit with the professor yesterday, I am rethinking several caveats. To his defense, I state the following: Being 50-something, I can attest that one of the joys of aging is difficulty in remembering little details. And it only gets worse. Each decade brings with it memory banks that become more crusty, especially that of short term. My mother, at the age of 91, would tell me that within two hours following lunch, she could not remember what she ate at the meal. Point being, even if we introduce ourselves, given the collective state of retention, it would seem common courtesy to provide reinforcement by having our names monogrammed! For the record, make certain to have the letters amply large and sharp, as aging also makes it difficult to see so well!

I have a tendency to get lazy about reintroducing myself when my regular patients are scheduled. I know that they know me. Numerous times, when I have gone through reintroduction motions, more than a few laugh and say: "I know who you are, Eileen!" (It's almost as if they are insulted that I am failing to remember the depth of our relationship!)

I'll usually make a little joke about how awful I am with names, and that I have the advantage because their patient record is in front of me. I tell the patient that I might not do so well if I ran into them at the store, then follow up with details about them that are firmly entrenched in my memory bank. (It's as if I have to overcompensate to make sure they realize just how well I know them!)

Let me close with a reference to the usage of the handshake during patient interactions. I've written about the power of this in a previous column, and it is worthy of mentioning again.

If extending your hand is not a part of your new-patient protocol, you might want to consider it. It creates a positive initial connection and makes a significant impression on people. I've been shaking hands chairside for the past 20 years. I always do it with new patients, accompanied by an introduction as to who I am, my role in the practice, and the services I will be providing. I also shake hands and reintroduce myself at the start of patient recall visits when I see those who have been scheduled with me only a few times-or with someone who has not seen me recently.

Patients whom I know well and see regularly, get their handshake from me in parting. If you are a long-term hygienist in a practice, it might be easier to integrate handshakes exclusively with new patients or those you don't know well. I'm betting that many of you have patients who greet or close their hygiene visits with a hug! Me too!

The lesson I learned from the events of yesterday is that I will order a nametag, and not allow myself to assume anything! 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 www.eileenmorrissey.com.