Find your patients’ ”hot buttons” and get their attention!
by Colene W. House, RDH
As a hygienist for 36 years, I’ve found that patients, however willingly or unwillingly they sit in my chair, can choose whether or not they listen to what I have to say about the health of their teeth. I’m pretty good at determining whether someone wants to be left alone with his or her thoughts as I toil away, but sometimes I do take advantage of the fact that this person is, should I say, my captive audience. I can’t help it; I love telling stories!
Sometimes I regale them with the story du jour, and I have plenty! Over the years I’ve shared such stories as my daughter’s method of choosing a college. I never knew that school colors complementing one’s complexion was that important. I have a great one about my son’s 9-year-old baseball team winning the district tournament because the parents dutifully had Butterfinger candy bars in their possession. Lately, patients have actually asked to hear about Piggy, the squirrel. If I’m in a particularly fine mood I’ll share the joke du jour. Other times, heaven forbid, I turn into their other mother, laying out the basics of what really happens to their health if they don’t take care of their teeth and gums. I have to admit I’m pretty good at capturing someone’s attention with my actions and words.
Hygienists had better be good at getting patients’ attention. We jump through hoops to get patients to listen to us, as well as follow our directions once they leave our clutches. And yes, it may take several visits to find just the right words, or as one speaker calls it, the “hot button.” The hot button is the one thing a patient can relate to. One patient I saw was a painter, so when I compared his teeth to a three-story house with peeling paint and rotting windowsills, I got his attention. A banker related to the “investment” he had made in the crowns in his mouth he wasn’t taking care of. We need to make the effort to really get to know these patients who have chosen us for their dental care. Decide whether to use a soft or stern approach. Finding that hot button can be like going on a quest to find the Holy Grail!
One of my favorite quests to find an elusive hot button resulted in a story that has survived the years ... about a little boy I’ll call Mikey. Mikey was about 8 years old. When I went out to the reception room and called his name, I knew I was going to like him. He popped out of his chair, marched back to my operatory without a backwards glance at his mom, flopped in my chair, and slumped down with his head barely reaching the headrest. His face was dirty from the school playground, and his blond hair stuck out from under his baseball cap. Then I realized he had on his baseball uniform. There are three things I’m soft for - a good cup of coffee, a piece of pie, and a man in uniform. However impressed I was by this young man in his “ball suit,” he was equally unimpressed with how smashing I looked in my uniform. I knew I had my work cut out for me, especially when he opened his mouth to show off some really yucky incisors and molars caked with plaque!
“Mikey! How many times a day do you brush?”
I received the universal shrug and eye roll accompanied with the unintelligible “Iuhno.”
“Well, how long do you brush when you do brush?”
Again, the same reply.
Oh, boy. OK, my training kicked in to look for the hot button, and my mind was racing. How was I going to get his attention? Then I got it! With my heart picking up a beat or two, I asked, “Mikey, when was the last time you hit a home run?”
Finally his eyes met mine. “Huh?” he asked incredulously. What did that have to do with clean teeth?
Realizing I was inching out on a limb, I asked him again.
Finally he answered plainly, “I don’t know what the problem is, but I haven’t hit one this year yet.”
“Well, I know the problem,” I said ... inch, inch ... “How in the world do you expect to hit a home run with all this plaque on your teeth?”
A look crossed his face.
“OK, here’s the thing. I’m going to clean your teeth and get all the gunk off. It’s slowing you down, and I’m surprised you can make it around the bases.”...inch, inch ... “When’s your next game?”
“This afternoon at five.”
“All right, I’m going to get this plaque cleaned off your teeth, and I guarantee you’ll at least hit a triple.”
I know, I know, I’m stretching the truth, and for those of you with no baseball knowledge, I was now dangling off the proverbial end of a very long limb. I had absolutely no idea what kind of baseball player this kid was, and to make a promise like that was very daring. And I hadn’t even read any of Deepak Chopra’s books yet. But one has to believe! But I did have his undivided attention.
I reviewed the two-minute brushing rule, the flossing rule, and did a show-and-tell with the toothbrush. I finished up on Mikey and took him out to his mom, new toothbrush and disclosing tablets in hand, and bid him goodbye and good luck in his game. I gave him a conspiratorial wink as I said goodbye, then turned around to go back to my operatory, and gave a long, slow sigh of relief. Would I make a difference in the way this young fellow took care of his teeth? I had no idea what was in store.
The next morning, as the other hygienist and I arrived at work, there was a small, yellow sticky note on the front door. We gently lifted it off and read together: “To whoever cleaned Mikey’s teeth, he did hit his first home run tonight!”
I laugh each time I think of this story. I have told it many times to my athletic patients. These guys often come back in to tell me that they made three touchdown passes in their football game, or kicked in the winning field goal, or threw a no-hitter. The luck keeps holding.
Did I luck out with Mikey? You betcha! Did Mikey come in with cleaner teeth? What do you think? Would I do it again? I have but one thing to say to that question ... whatever it takes, baby. Whatever it takes.
Colene W. House, RDH, is a 1971 graduate of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. She has spent the majority of her time in clinical dentistry, and has helped design soft-tissue management programs for the offices where she has worked. Being actively involved with the Eblen Foundation Sealant Program, House helps to provide free sealants for first- and second-grade children from schools throughout the county in the dental clinic at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. After 36 years in dentistry, House now pursues her love of writing. She may be contacted at [email protected].