Absolutely, Positively Delighted at the Dentist’s

Is it possible to actually look forward to a trip to the dentist? I think so.

First a confession: I am a big fat wimp when it comes to anything pain related. For many years, the dentist has been at the top of my list of people to do anything to avoid. In fact, my last trip was over three years ago. On that occasion, I fainted in the chair. (I will admit that was a bit dramatic.)

This all changed when I finally built up the courage to visit a dentist in Rochester last week.

Upon arriving at the office, I was warmly welcomed by the receptionist. Next, I was promptly greeted by a soft-spoken, young dental hygienist named Corinne, who would be my guide throughout my two-hour appointment. Corrine gave me a tour of the handsomely-decorated office prior to directing me to the chair I would occupy while under the drill. I was immediately impressed by this chair, colored a lovely pearlescent, sea-foam green, with a built-in massager and personal television set, allowing me to peruse through the my favorite channels while having my teeth worked on.

At this point I actually caught myself thinking, “If I didn’t have to get my teeth fixed today, I’m not sure I’d want to go back to work.”

While all these cushy bells and whistles were certainly nice to have, it was the conversations and interactions I had with both the hygienist and the dentist that built a truly impressive experience. As a designer researcher at the Center for Innovation, I am interested in patient experience, and my dentist’s visit really made me observe what was happening at the dentist’s to make me feel so - delighted.

Corrine was an excellent guide through my experience. She took ownership of the relationship and expertly, professionally, and warmly addressed my concerns. Even during my short time with the dentist (who was also wonderful), Corrine stayed with me. There was no “hand-off” or passing me on to the next person, and she was an inextricable member of the conversation. I enjoyed witnessing this effortless teamwork.

While my cushy massaging chair and personal television set certainly helped, it was Corrine who truly made me feel at ease during the teeth cleaning process. Again I have to be clear about my starting point; I am a person who vehemently, passionately dislikes anything dentist-related, which includes having my teeth cleaned. So, it was a great achievement for Corrine to play the starring role in helping me to surmount my obstacle. I think she did it by expertly preparing my expectations through communicating carefully for each step within the process. She carefully explained ahead of time each step, including what she was planning to do inside my mouth, and why it was being done. She included whether it was likely to feel uncomfortable, and how long each step would take. Whenever possible, she used a small camera to transmit images from within my mouth, to show me any areas I should be concerned with. It was extremely powerful to see MY teeth with these explanations.

Even though Corrine did a wonderful job at being gentle and not tearing my mouth to shreds, I really do wonder if her terrific communication skills would have allowed me to tolerate an even more painful experience (not that I would ever want to find out).

I won’t go into the gruesome details of my dental situation, but this is an area where throughout my life I have experienced quite a bit of self-consciousness and discomfort. I know it sounds irrational, but during trips to the dentist I despised not just the pain but the guilt-trip I would get for not getting into the office often enough. In addition, there was the lack of acknowledgement from both the hygienist and dentist of just how much pain I was experiencing. Because of this I would spend ridiculously long periods of time avoiding the dentist office. Nonetheless, both Corinne and the dentist were brilliant at using only positive language to talk about my teeth. There was no guilt for not coming in sooner; only dialogue on how glad they were to see me. Both of them were incredibly empathetic, and I felt convinced that they understood and identified with my concerns and anxieties.

So often clinical interactions are ridden by the heaps of things a patient isn’t doing or not doing right. I was extremely impressed by how both the dentist and the hygienist focused specifically on what I was doing well with my dental health. While they would spend a brief amount of time discussing what I should work on, they would then show me photos of my actual teeth and the areas in my mouth where teeth and gums were healthy. I was so deeply impressed by how natural it was for both of them to focus on the positive with me.

The bottom-line lessons that I believe made my visit to the dentist delightful were that my caregivers:

  • Dedicated one full-time person was to managing the relationship
  • Focused on the positives and never evoked, or used, guilt
  • Showed me (the patient) what I was doing well
  • Set clear and specific expectations at every step
  • Used relevant, personalized images to supplement verbal explanation (show AND tell)

All of these factors together worked brilliantly to transform what is usually a dreadful experience for me into one that I might actually look forward to in the future. I intend to schedule my next appointment in six months. Amazing!

Finally, my wonderful dentist visit reminded me of how pleasant and useful it is to stay observant, whether it is health care related or not, to how do I experience delight in my life.

This experience reminds me of the presentation Maggie Breslin gave at Transform in 2009 on the value of meaningful patient conversations.

Written by Marnie Meylor, Design Researcher, Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation