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“Just a Cleaning”? Absolutely Not! But it Takes a Dental Team Effort to Get Patients on Board

I recently wrote an article for DentistryIQ where I discussed how our office noticed patients were not scheduling their recare appointments because we referred to the appointment as “just” a cleaning.

This minimized the importance of the appointment and allowed patients to disregard the need for scheduling.

The intent of the article was to convey the idea that small things make a big difference when we communicate with patients.

In the case of our office, one small change we made by removing the word “just” when referencing cleanings helped change patients’ frame of mind about prioritizing their appointments.

I was happy to see that the article was shared multiple times throughout the dental community, garnering more attention than any other article I’ve written. However, I also received some emails from hygienists and dental assistants who were concerned about the language of my article.

They emailed to point out that hygienists do much more during a visit than a “cleaning.” They suggested saying to patients, “It’s important to schedule your next regular oral assessment and treatment by a dental hygienist.”

Another email said dental staff should use correct terminology with patients about the specifics of the services they receive during regular maintenance appointments.

This hygienist suggested that the word “cleaning” is used too broadly, which gives it no real meaning, and that dental professionals should work to inform patients about the nature of specific services, such as periodontal maintenance, prophylaxis, and more.

The hygienist’s concern was that dental teams assume patients won’t understand these terms, which limits the profession in the public view to just “teeth cleaners” rather than trained health professionals.

Now let me say that I had no intention of offending any hygienists or assistants with my article. I fully appreciate that they do much more than “clean teeth.”

I believe that dental professionals save lives every day and perform treatments that help patients live better and longer lives.

Considering our practice started with no patients in 2008 and now has 15 days of hygiene each week, I’m fully aware of the importance of our amazing hygienists and their clinical skills. I’m all for making sure that each and every one of the hygienists and assistants is treated with the utmost respect and viewed by all patients and team members as health-care professionals. Honestly, they’re the backbone of our practice.

I’d like to thank the hygienists and assistants who reached out to me with their concerns. They’re absolutely right!

Even though my focus was on the “just” aspect rather than the “cleaning” aspect, this is obviously a big issue that dental offices can do a better job of addressing in their interactions with patients.

I believe 110% that every dental team out there should use accurate terminology and clearly explain to patients how the services provided in their appointment will benefit them. In a well-run and well-managed office, I’m sure this happens every day.

But it’s my opinion that many offices simply do not yet run at that high level in which clear and accurate communication with patients is prioritized. I believe that most front office team members, especially ones who are new to our industry, don’t fully understand all the value provided during these maintenance appointments.

Front office employees are often not clinically trained, and many times they may focus only on the task of booking the next appointment rather than viewing it as an opportunity to support the practice as a whole.

As a trainer who specializes in front office teams, my intention is to help them understand the significance of these daily tasks as a part of the office’s overall mission.

Removing the word “just” in the common phrase “just a cleaning” is the No. 1 priority in terms of getting patients to schedule that next appointment.

The nuance of educating patients in correct terminology is a lost cause if they can’t be persuaded to schedule before leaving the office. Then, at the next appointment, there’s a greater opportunity for education during that one-on-one time.

I understand that we don’t want to minimize the procedure by calling it a “cleaning.” However, a confused patient who’s hearing new terminology for the first time isn’t going to be more likely to schedule that appointment.

We should be teaching them, yes, but first we have to get them scheduled.

Again, I appreciate all the suggestions and comments I received, and I definitely think it’s ideal if we can get those ideas integrated into our offices, for those of us already functioning at that higher level.

For others, at a minimum, removing the word “just” may be a good first step in the right direction.

Laura Nelson

Laura Nelson, BS, MS, FAADOM is the founder and driving force behind Front Office Rocks, and the leading provider of on-demand virtual training and resources for dental practices.