A Dental Hygienist’s Heart: The Depth of Patient-Hygienist Relationships


When I write a dental article, it is usually full of research and nerdy information that I find myself geeking out as I dive into the facts. However, I come to you today on a more somber note. Do me a favor and take a break right now as you read this, and allow yourself to breathe. Maybe what I am about to say resonates with you, or maybe you just started your dental hygiene journey, and this is something that you have yet to experience.

But before all that, let me take you back to 2002 when I began my dental hygiene journey. Why did I begin? Well, if I am being completely transparent with you, I was bullied as a middle schooler over my teeth (classic Class III malocclusion). Once I completed orthodontic treatment, I just knew that I needed to help other individuals with their smiles. So began my journey.

Finding a Dental Home

In 2004, I walked across the stage with my diploma in hand, and I started my career fairly soon after graduation. In my inexperienced mind, I was going to clean teeth, educate patients on their oral hygiene regimen, and then clock out and do it all over the next day.

Some of you may be thinking, “Wait, isn’t that what we do?” It is indeed part of what we do, but we are so much more.

I spent nearly a year at my first office and then made the decision to move out of state. Here, I worked as a solo hygienist in a small practice for the next three years. Over the course of these three years, I began to ease into my role, and my confidence grew. Just when I was beginning to remember faces and names on my schedule, the office took a turn and spontaneously closed without exchanging hands. Luckily for me, it wasn’t long before I began at my next job, a new office in my town.

I do not recall how much time had lapsed since beginning my employment with this new office, but I recall going shopping with my sister one afternoon and running into a patient I had treated at my previous office. She ran up to me and, with complete relief, exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, it’s you. I found you!” Apparently, she had been eagerly trying to locate me since the previous office closure. Over the course of the next several months, patients whom I had treated for the last three years began tracking me down, which wasn’t easy considering the days of social media didn’t exist.

I remember feeling humbled because wasn’t I “just” their hygienist? Could these people really not accept seeing someone else for their dental hygiene care? It was at this moment I realized that maybe I had underestimated the depth of our relationship.

The Depth of Patient-Hygienist Relationships

I have been at my current office of employment for 15 years as of this past May. Here, I have continued to build my relationship with my patients. Once I realized that my demeanor affected their attitude toward me, I began placing a deeper emphasis on the conduct of the appointment. My chair became more than the dentist’s chair. When patients sit in my chair, they no longer carry that sense of dread that seems to hover around dental appointments. We greet each other with smiles and playful banter and often depart with hugs.

When a new patient appears on my schedule, I take the opportunity to “read the room” and find tactful ways to connect. I know when to respect the silence a patient may desire. But more than not, I watched as they returned to each appointment with something exciting to tell me or eagerly anticipating a follow-up on an event in my life.

It’s as if my chair became a safe space. Patients tell me that their appointments are stressless and the environment feels welcoming. Patients open up to me and share their most joyful life moments and, sadly, the moments that take their breath away. Sometimes, I am surprised at their vulnerability but never shut them down when they choose to share. I think it astonishes them at times, but they have never ceased to thank me for allowing them to vent.

My patients share pictures of their children and grandkids. They ask me for advice on wedding details and makeup. We share recipes and gardening tips. My patients bring me gifts for my birthday, make me delectable desserts just because, they surprise me with plants and harvest from their gardens, and spoil me with my favorite doughnuts.

I, too, have surprised my patients with tokens of appreciation, representing to them just how much I care not only about their oral health but their lives in general. I often send cards to my patients when they are dredging through tough times or surprise them with a gift if it happens to be a topic of conversation. When patients explain they are changing their diet to improve their newfound health condition, I research recipes that may be helpful and send them their way. It doesn’t have to be costly, but I find that the smallest of things make the biggest impact.

My patients have also done for me what I have for them. When I struggled through infertility for six years, they were there to help pick up my spirits. They lifted my mood and prayed with and for me. They excused me when I had to leave the room to cool an unexpected hot flash from the fertility treatments.

When my husband and I adopted our twins, my patients were some of my biggest cheerleaders. They have watched my children grow and never fail to ask about them at every appointment. When my dog passed away, my patients cried with me and sent me tokens of sympathy. When I was plagued with groundhogs in my yard, they laughed at my comical stories.

As you can see, I apparently do far more than treat my patient’s oral health.

The Loss of a Patient

Losing a patient is hard, and it never ceases to punch me in the gut when I learn of their passing. While some may be expected, it never makes the sorrow easier to swallow. It is in these moments that I make sure to express how much that patient touched my life and what an honor it was to be their treating dental hygienist by sending cards to their family. After all, these patients have given me 18 years of their loyalty. It is the least I could do.

One of my patients came in for her appointment shortly after losing her daughter, who was also a patient of mine. She shared the last few days of her daughter’s life with me, and we grieved for her. How humbled I felt that she wanted to share those delicate last moments with me.

In Closing

While this may not be everyone’s “cup of tea,” I find that adding personal elements helps me treat my patients with ease. Compliance increases because they no longer dread their appointment and actually look forward to coming. Treating a patient who is relaxed will help me conduct my treatment more efficiently.

Until you are familiar with their faces, perhaps writing notes in the chart will help you remember a personal touch to add to their next appointment. You will be surprised how much it moves them for you to recall something about their lives. This is a start to building a healthy patient-clinician relationship.

The method by which I treat my patients has made conducting my job much more enjoyable. While not every patient will be receptive to this connection, so many more will. To imagine that maybe I have touched their lives as much as they have touched mine is unfathomable. I never started this career path with these intentions, but I am thankful for the opportunity to be the difference.

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