What did you say?

March 21, 2012

As hygienists, we see a lot of patients and hear a lot of stories. We know about their lives and their families. Hygienists are people-oriented, and that is what I love the most about dental hygiene.  Sometimes, however, our patients say or do things we aren’t expecting, and we have to come up with a quick yet professional way to respond. Here are some of the best patient quotes I’ve heard over the years. Do you sterilize your instruments?

As hygienists, we see a lot of patients and hear a lot of stories. We know about their lives and their families. Hygienists are people-oriented, and that is what I love the most about dental hygiene. 

Sometimes, however, our patients say or do things we aren’t expecting, and we have to come up with a quick yet professional way to respond. Here are some of the best patient quotes I’ve heard over the years.

Do you sterilize your instruments?

This is one of my favorites. I really hope the patient meant, “How do you sterilize your instruments?” 

What I want to say: “Only every other patient” or “Once a week.”

What I actually say: “We use an autoclave that features temperature and pressure to heat the instruments to the temperature that kills all bacterial life.”

Scrape harder!

A 40 year old male patient came in and the first thing he says to me is he doesn’t want me to use any new scalers, just old school instruments and the harder I scrape, the better. He has rings of calculus subgingivally around each tooth. As I am scaling the calculus from under the gumline, he is moaning and saying “Yeah! Scrape harder!” His moans were very much like sexual moans. I really was not sure what to say.

How I handled it: The best way to handle this situation is to carry on and act as if every patient does this. I just ignored it and got through the appointment as fast as I could. When we were finished he told the receptionist he wanted the other hygienist next time because I didn’t scrape hard enough. Phew!

That “dumb” dental floss

I was new to this practice when one of the woman patients came in for a follow up. I had reviewed the chart and knew she had a lot of 4 mm periodontal measurements at her last visit. As I was probing and seeing much improvement, I asked her what she had been doing differently in the last 6 months. Her response was “I have been using that dumb dental floss.” I resisted the urge to laugh out loud and told her it isn’t that dumb if the results are this good.

What can we skip today?

This was a busy mom who was in a hurry. She wanted to know what we could skip to make her appointment go faster.

What I wanted to say: “Should I skip cleaning your molar teeth and only clean the ones you see when you smile? Or maybe we could skip your oral cancer screening?” 

What I actually said: I ended up telling her I was not going to skip anything so if she didn’t have time today maybe she should reschedule for a day that worked better for her.

Patients sure keep it interesting

Those are a few of my favorite quotes from patients. Some patients are known for strange behaviors. Dental fear has many levels, and we see them all! I once had a woman come in with a plastic grocery bag and a box of facial tissues. She refused to swallow her own saliva during the cleaning and also refused the saliva ejector. She would spit into a tissue then throw it in the bag, getting a new tissue for the next time she needed it. So I polished with no paste, because she didn’t like that either. 

Another woman would whimper through her entire cleaning. It wasn’t really crying, but very much like a scared animal whimper. One woman had to have a stepstool next to the chair so one foot was on the stepstool. I guess it gave her the feeling of having “one foot on the ground.”

Several of my patients think I’m a therapist as well, and proceed to tell me all their problems and personal struggles. One man talked about his dead wife at every visit, and she had been dead for many years. Another woman would tell me about her ex-husband and how much she disliked him.

Know how to react

So as hygienists we see and hear a lot of things in the chair. We only have limited time with our patients, and not much time to react to what they say. Thinking on our feet is very important in our profession. We have to remain professional and choose appropriate responses. I keep a journal of what patients say to me, which might make a great book one day. It also enables me to refer back and review how I handled certain situations in case they come up again. 

One thing is for sure, the patients keep on coming in and the things they say keep getting better and better!

Jeanne Bosecker, BSN, RDH, is a dental hygienist in private practice in the Chicago Suburbs. She works part time for two different general dentistry practices. In her spare time she enjoys travel, cooking, live music and karaoke. She is an animal lover and lives with her three cats in Bartlett, IL.