Helping patients to help themselves

Good communication is fundamental to providing safe and effective patient care. Communication provides the basis for gathering information from patients, conveys information to patients about his or her problem and offers necessary treatment options to deal with it. It provides dental professionals with a foundation for diagnosis and treatment.

One of the first opportunities a hygienist has to interact with a patient is at the consultation or examination. This exchange of information between the hygienist and the patient should be in simple terms, with not too many messages. Additionally, realistic goals should be set. The instructions given to the patient need to be clear and the health professional’s behaviour non-blaming and non-threatening. The information shared in a consultation can influence the patient and the amount of information they in turn share. At this stage, the hygienist should attempt to build good interpersonal relationships by exchanging information that will be valuable in making treatment-related decisions.

Many patients are anxious and fearful when attending the dental clinic. Being sensitive to the patients’ needs and showing empathy helps to build a relationship with the patient. The consultation is an opportunity to discuss patients’ concerns and provide information in a language the patients can understand. Good communication skills would need to be utilised; this includes effective listening, feedback and clarification to help to develop a good relationship with the patient (Ayer WA, 2005).

Education and motivation
Healthcare not only involves treatment but also includes the patients’ education and motivation as a part of prevention. The hygienist provides patients with information that should result in behaviour change, helping the patients to help themselves. Teaching patients to recognise and deal with health problems instils a belief that they can take action and confront the problem. Consequently, patients will feel they have some control of their health and can manage illness more successfully (Locker D, 1989).

When patients come to a hygiene appointment, providing oral hygiene instructions, diet advice and smoking cessation is an integral part of the visit. However, before giving this advice the hygienist should establish the patient’s medical, dental and social history. For example, do they have any concerns or complaints? Are they anxious or fearful? What does the patient want to achieve by having this treatment done? The advice should then be tailored to meet the needs of each patient. It has been established that individuals have different personalities and that the relationship with each patient is unique. Without a better understanding of each patient’s circumstances, the advice given might well be ineffective.

The hygienist gives advice with the intention of helping patients meet their oral health needs. Good communication can lead to increased compliance and, as long as they can share views and opinions, patients feeling involved in their own care. These discussions assist the patients in making informed decisions. When relationships with patients involve comprehensive discussion of treatment options and probable outcomes, this will have a positive effect on the level of compliance.

Patient satisfaction
The patient’s satisfaction is increased when there is a high level of interaction between the health professional and the patient. The hygienist cannot solely rely upon clinical competency but must also make use of effective communication skills to ensure quality care and patient satisfaction (Yamalik N, 2008).

As mentioned earlier, patients are often anxious when they attend the dental clinic. However, the hygienist’s willingness to listen, explain options and deal with concerns is taken as an indication of interest in the patient. As a result, the patient’s anxiety is relieved and this will lead to greater satisfaction with treatment.

Response and sensitivity
Magazine and television makeover programmes have increased patients’ expectations about their appearance. In dentistry, some of these expectations can be unrealistic. It is the dental professional’s responsibility to communicate with patients about their expectations and what can be realistically achieved.

Good communication is also important in relaying bad news to patients; it can prevent hostility and confrontation. Utilising effective communication skills helps the hygienist to diffuse potentially violent situations. This may include using non-threatening behaviour in response to a threat and calming the patients down while being extremely pleasant. Both require good communication skills and sensitivity.

Good communication and interaction improves treatment outcomes (Newton JT, 1995). It improves the patient’s therapy and leads to more favourable therapeutic outcomes. This is achieved through a better diagnosis of the patient’s problem and an improvement in the quality and amount of information obtained from the patient.

It is essential to avoid technical language, confirm the patient’s understanding of the information and handle the patient’s questions, concerns and complaints with sensitivity (Yamalik N, 2008).
Good communication is a key dental care provision. It is the foundation for obtaining quality and concise information from patients during consultations and examinations.

When such a relationship is based upon effective communication, compliance is increased and your patients’ anxiety and fear is decreased. As a result, treatment outcomes can be improved and lifestyle changes made. Another important issue to bear in mind is that greater patient satisfaction leads to a reduction in complaints or allegations of malpractice. Consequently, good communication could perhaps be considered the most important aspect of dental care.

Ayer WA (2005) Psychology and dentistry mental health aspects of dental care. The Hanworth Press, Inc: New York

Locker D (1989) An introduction to behaviour science and dentistry. Routeledge: London

Yamalik N (2008) Dentist-patient relationship and quality care 3. Communication. International Dental Journal 55(4): 254-6

Newton JT (1995) Dentist-patient communication: a review. Dental Update 22(3): 118-22

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