The art of communication has a key role to play in the successful delivery of dentistry. This begins the moment a patient walks in.
The GDC’s Standards for the Dental Team places upon you an expectation to ‘communicate effectively with patients – listen to them, give them time to consider information and take their individual views and communication needs into account’. Dental hygienist, Lisa Smith, is a keen advocate of this, embracing tailor-made patient communication with vigour.
Lisa works in six practices throughout south Yorkshire. Having first trained as a dental nurse, she qualified from the RAF as a dental hygienist in 1988 and was, at 19, the youngest hygienist they had trained.
Nowadays, her patients are from a wide spectrum of the population. She receives referrals from dentists who send patients not only for oral hygiene care but for health and dietary advice, too.
Lisa explains: ‘My initial role is one of discovery. I book half-hour appointments, which allows time to discuss fully the patient’s oral health and hear their worries and concerns. This makes them feel listened to. Often, at their next scheduled appointment, they return with a whole host of questions; it sparks interest and they appreciate it.’
Educating patients is easy for Lisa, who explains: ‘I pick out what will interest them, speak kindly and try to make it specific without lecturing. You have to mirror your patient, and so I am gentle with the nervous, less formal with the joker and so on.
‘I think dental hygienists are often seen as a softer option. We generally take a little extra time to be friendly, kind and gentle. We are good communicators and this enables us to get across key messages.’
When it comes to hygiene appointments, Lisa very much believes ‘one size does not fit all’. She says: ‘I’m a strong believer in offering tailor-made advice. I don’t want to bore anyone with unnecessary information and offer health-specific advice to each one. If my patient is a smoker, I will offer smoking cessation advice, and explain how it reduces blood supply and affects resistance to bacteria and link it to gum disease.’
‘It’s also important to find out what they perceive is their problem. I find demonstrating tooth brushing at the start of an appointment invaluable. Often patients turn up confident that they have brushed their teeth properly – what I call a ‘pre-dentist clean’. The new Oral-B Testdrive demo model has changed things significantly for me – and my patients. I’ve always believed in using demonstration and pictures to educate patients but this offers a unique opportunity to demonstrate the 5000 power toothbrush, safely, inside the patient’s mouth.
‘It means the patient can experience the “wow” factor when they run the tongue over their teeth after a clean. I then let the patient have a go and tweak any angles. New patients are always pleasantly surprised. They love the “try before you buy” experience.
‘Additionally, having a Belmont “folding leg rest” chair suits my approach to care because you can easily get patients into the upright position to facilitate both toothbrushing demonstrations and face-to-face discussions.
Raising the hygienist profile
Looking ahead, Lisa feels there is a need to raise the profile of dental hygienists. Her experience of direct access since its inception three years ago is sketchy, with some of her practices embracing it and others not, but she’s adamant it has value. She explains: ‘If you can get a person through the door and make them comfortable and relaxed, you have a perfect opportunity to highlight the fact they need to see the dentist. I will explain that I can clean their teeth but that they’ll need complex treatment to get them dentally fit.’
Despairing at a recent TV documentary about UK dentistry that failed to give the hygienist even a mention, she says: ‘Patients need to get that message. We can play a huge part within public health and usually, when I broach the subject, it tends to be only the people who are onside who understand. Let’s get the message across that we can help those who aren’t in the best of dental health.’