How-To, Advice

Conversation Starters for Patients Who Won't Open Up

By Melia Lewis, RDH, BSDH on August, 2 2019
Conversation Starters for Patients Who Won't Open Up
Melia Lewis, RDH, BSDH

Melia has been a dental hygienist for 10 years and loves being part of the dental field. She's originally from Alberta, Canada, but now lives and works in Utah. When she's not practicing dental hygiene or working on her website Hygiene Edge, she loves being in the Utah Mountains or being with her 5 year old Georgia.

We’ve all been there. A patient slumps down in your chair, head down in their phone. One-word answers to your questions. Eye contact? Forget it. When you mention they’re due for radiographs, they let out a large sigh.

You just know right away this appointment will be quiet, your OHE tricks won’t go over well, and trying to explain necessary treatment might be pointless.

I’m not going to lie. I LOVE when these patients come into my operatory. I make it a game to try to get them to chat a little and have a great experience at the dental office that day.

Here's how I get them to open up.

First off, I put myself in their shoes. They’re probably very busy and may have had a horrible past experience at a dental office, and being quiet and ignoring is a coping mechanism for them.

Maybe they’re having a hard time at work or in their personal life, and this is an hour to decompress. I get it! We can be a great and safe space for these patients to just relax or mentally try to make it through the appointment.

Next, after radiographs, I start the conversation of what flavor prophy paste they’d like that day. I know it’s way out of sequence, but it’s an easy and non-threatening question to start the patient thinking.

Many times adult patients aren’t even offered other flavors, and mint ends up being the default appointment after appointment. Giving them the option of grape, chocolate brownie or pina colada makes them think and tends to lighten up the mood of the appointment.

Sometimes this choice can open up a conversation, as well. If they pick a summer drink flavor, you could ask if they’ve been on any tropical vacations recently or if they have any summer plans.

Before you lean the patient back in the chair, look them in the eyes and ask if they have any questions or concerns. Get on their level by sitting in your operator chair, and take the second to ask a question.

This is much less threatening than asking while they’re leaning back and staring up at you with your loupes and mask on. Usually, patients will say no, but sitting down like you’re going to have a conversation keeps the mood light and caring.

As I’m working on a patient, I’ll casually mention areas of concern I see. Maybe they have a “possible carious lesion” on the buccal of #2, or a large amalgam filling with the tooth cracked around it on #15. Point out the tooth and mention that you’re a bit concerned about it, but we’ll see what the dentist thinks.

If you have a good relationship with your DDS, you could write down these areas of concern on a sticky note and put them right by the exam gloves for the dentist to talk about during the exam.

Always end the appointment on a high note, leaving a lasting impression on the patient. And what do patients absolutely love? Free stuff!! I keep all of my samples from conventions and order lots of different oral hygiene aids that I can give to my patients.

If they mention they love the toothbrush you give out, give them two. If they talk about their new grandbaby or ask oral health questions about their children, give them an aid or a toothbrush for the age of the little one.

It shows you were listening to their question, even if it wasn’t about their home care, and how much you care about them as a person. It costs an extra few cents per appointment, but the impression it leaves is so much greater.

We are in an amazing position as dental hygienists. We can connect with patients on a different level and see them as people instead of a mouth. We can have them open up and share their lives and experiences in a different setting, even when it’s tricky at times.

What do you do to connect with your patients?


Learn more about Hygiene Edge here.

Submit a Comment

Stay up to date