Perfecting the Hand-Off

Oct. 1, 2012
My business associate and I had been seated at the restaurant for a lunch meeting when the waiter arrived. Matt, a tall pleasant fellow ...

by Janet Hagerman, RDH, BSDH

“Did you see that?!” Well, no actually, I didn’t. See what?

My business associate and I had been seated at the restaurant for a lunch meeting when the waiter arrived. Matt, a tall pleasant fellow, whisked away the extra unneeded place setting at our table and, while holding it in his hand, introduced himself and began to tell us about the day’s lunch specials. As he was speaking, I vaguely remember another waiter passing by. After Matt left our table my lunch partner leaned over conspiratorially and in a loud, urgent whisper asked me, “Did you see that?!” “See what?” I answered. “What are you talking about? What did I miss?” She then proceeded to tell me about the “other” waiter that had passed by behind Matt. Evidently, he had quietly taken the extra place setting from Matt’s hand as he passed by, wordlessly and silently relieving this small detail so that Matt could focus on us and concentrate on reciting to us the daily specials.

Now this may seem trivial to you, but to us it was big! Understand that this observation and conversation took place between two dental consultants, coaches in teamwork and experts in team support and communication. This is the type of stuff we get excited about! Here is the clincher: I actually had seen it. As she explained how smoothly this had taken place, somewhere in the recess of my brain, I did indeed recall the swift exchange of the extra place setting, hand to hand, unspoken, like the passing of a baton in a relay race. But it happened so smoothly, quietly, effortlessly, their teamwork, that I hardly noticed.

Had they rehearsed this? Was this covered in their training manual? Who knows? What I do know is this: our servers displayed teamwork at its best, and graphically illustrated a perfect “hand-off.” What is a hand-off and why is it important? In dentistry, hand-offs are crucial for your patients, but few dental practices have mastered this skill. In a dental office, rather than passing silverware, you are passing a more precious commodity – your patient. In an effort to be an advocate for your patient, to assure that their visit is smooth and effortless, that they feel comfortable at every step of their visit, you must be that team that excels at the hand-off.

What Is A Hand-Off?

The hand-off is literally handing the patient from one team member to the next. This means never leaving a patient alone without letting them know who and what to expect next. It means never dropping them off at the front desk to a receptionist on the phone, or abandoning them in a treatment room wondering how long they’ll be there and who they will see next. It means preparing your patient every step of the way by explaining who and what comes next, anticipating their needs and expectations, and introducing them to the next team member, thereby setting them up for a successful appointment.

Why A Hand-Off?

On a very simple level, our patients all want to know the same things:

  • Where are you taking me?
  • Who will I be seeing?
  • What will they be doing to me?
  • How long will it take?
  • Will it hurt?
  • How much will it cost?
  • When can I get out of here?

Regardless of whether your patient is a confident business CEO, the multi-tasking mom, a college student or a hesitant child, all of your patients need the reassurance of what and who comes next. So your hand-offs need to address these same concerns, over and over, every patient, every time. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Make hand-offs a habit!

By utilizing appropriate hand-offs, you eliminate a lot of unspoken anxieties your patients have. Done properly, hand-offs also:

  • Re-assure your patients that they’re in the right place
  • Increase the level of trust your patients have with your team
  • Make your patients feel understood
  • Increase patient rapport
  • Set the stage for comfortable treatment presentation
  • Increase chances of treatment acceptance

When you eliminate the anxieties most patients experience when going to the dentist, you create an atmosphere of nurturing care. Your patients will feel like every member of your team is their advocate – and that is what fosters trust in you and your team and loyalty to your practice.

How To Hand-Off

The entire team must be committed to hand-offs. Plan your hand-off strategy (feel free to use this article as a guideline) at a staff meeting, then briefly review at morning huddles.

Here are some sample scripts:

  • Hand-off to hygienist: “Ms. Smith, this is Sue, our hygienist. Sue, this is Ms. Smith and she’s missed past dental appointments. I told her you specialize in patients who haven’t been to a dental office in a while. Ms. Smith, I’ll leave you with Sue. You’re in good hands! I’ll check in with you later.”
  • Hand-off to doctor and assistant: “Ms. Smith, this is Dr. Jones. Dr. Jones is an expert at _____. He’ll know exactly how to handle your situation. And this is Dr. Jones’ assistant, Ann. Ann is our office TLC expert and she’ll take great care of you. I’ll see you later.”
  • Hand-off to front desk: “Ms. Smith, this is Nancy. Nancy, Ms. Smith needs an appointment for the crown/perio therapy I’ve indicated on her treatment plan. Also, will you please review her financial options with her? Ms. Smith, Nancy is our financial coordinator and she is absolutely great at finding ways to make dentistry affordable for our patients. Thanks for visiting us today. I’ll look forward to seeing you at your next visit.”

Obviously, you will adjust your verbiage for each patient’s individual needs. The point is to carefully and purposefully handle the patient in a positive and affirming manner, from team member to team member, making the patient feel cared for with every interaction. Positive hand-offs like this have the added benefit of reinforcing support from all team members, so the patient feels that each and every team member is an advocate for their benefit. This is what creates strong patient loyalty.

The Egg Game

I remember a fun team exercise I once experienced. It involved climbing poles, ropes, walls, zip lines and lots of other physical activity, all while helping our mutual teammates complete the course together. Additionally, each team carried with them one raw egg (decorated to look like a person!), which we had to safely deliver to the finish line. Now the game changed, because our focus switched from “How are we going to do all this?” to “How will we get our fragile egg through all this physical activity intact?” It was amazing how resourceful everyone became at protecting our little egg through the many hand-offs. That’s the attitude behind hand-offs and being your patient’s advocate – all the way, each time, every time.

Cirque Du Dentistry

One famous and remarkable example of great hand-offs is Cirque du Soleil. Don’t ever miss an opportunity to experience this incredible show. The performers fly through air at dizzying heights, in dazzling costumes to memorable music and sounds – all orchestrated and coordinated for an incredible audience experience. As an observer, it all seems so easy, graceful and effortless – sailing through the air in a costume with a feathered headdress only to catch someone else’s hands mid air, swinging to another trapeze – all without missing a beat to the music, costumes shimmering in the dazzling lights. Incredible focus and impeccable hand-offs are imperative for this team!

While our efforts in the dental office may not seem so dramatic, it’s a great metaphor to model. Be the Cirque du Soleil of dentistry! Make your hand-offs an ingrained part of your team, which may seem like an unconscious effort, but creates an unforgettable experience.

Your patients will probably never see or know the efforts you and your team make on their behalf (team meetings, chart reviews, morning huddles) but they will never forget how your dental experience makes them feel. Perfect your hand-offs and be the incomparable Cirque du Dentistry!

Janet Hagerman, RDH, BSDH, is an author, international speaker, advisory board member and consultant. A graduate of the Medical College of Georgia, her focus on communication and leadership empowers health professionals nationwide. To learn more, visit Janet’s website at or contact Janet at [email protected].

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