You’re Not My Hygienist! – How to meet the challenges of a fill-in hygienist

When members of a dental team need to take time off for any reason, practices often bring in temporary staff to cover for them. But not all patients are keen on that idea. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your fill-in assignments.

If dental hygienists were to be any superhero, it would be Batman. Coming in at the opportune moment to stave off crime (or in this case removing five to ten years worth of calculus), the day is saved, the victim sighs relief, and Batman returns to his Batcave. But not immune to sickness or need for respite, Batman might not want to leave his cave for a few days. So who is going to save Gotham in the meantime? Enter Robin. He knows the drill, he has the skills, and he’s prepared to help the defenseless.

Similarly, when hygienists need some R&R time, arrangements are made for temporary hygienists to cover the absence.

“Where’s my normal person?”

Unfortunately for Robin, when he arrives at the scene, people ask “Where’s Batman?” They’re terrified and trust the face they know best. Likewise, a temp hygienist walks into the waiting room and calls out the patient’s name. If the patient has not been forewarned, they look at the hygienist with a stunned stare and demand, “Where’s my normal person?”

This is one of the biggest challenges for us as temporary hygienists. The patient is accustomed to their normal hygienist; they have an established relationship. Perhaps the patient has some quirks and doesn’t like the cavitron or polish paste. Maybe they suffer from dental anxiety, and a familiar face helps them feel more comfortable. Additionally, the patient may view the hygienist as their friend and looks forward to the visit as a chance to catch up. All these things are disrupted by the temp.

So as temporary hygienists, what can we do to help overcome these challenges and ensure the appointment goes smoothly for both the patient and hygienist? There are several ways.

Build rapport with compassion

It helps to understand and sympathize with where the patient is coming from, and why they may be upset. If the patient expresses their frustrations, something as simple as saying, “I understand” can go a long way. It shows the patient that you are sensitive to the situation and that their feelings matter. You may just have to listen to the patient vent for a few minutes with the occasional nod of support. But don’t apologize for your presence either. That could potentially set the tone for the patient to control the appointment and not yourself.

Be prepared and learn about your patients

As temporary hygienists, we cannot transform ourselves into the “normal hygienist” but we can take preemptive measures that might help to earn us some bonus points. Looking through the patient’s chart ahead of time, perhaps there is a note regarding the patient’s preferences. Maybe they don’t like the cavitron, or their teeth are sensitive and usually receive a topical anesthetic.  Or maybe they only want unflavored pumice paste for their polish. Familiarizing yourself with the notes and getting the necessary products out beforehand, allows you to be in the position to say, “I took out the flavorless pumice paste, it’s what you normally like right?” Or “I read in the chart you prefer a handscale method so I won’t use the cavitron.” Doing this helps to ease the patient’s anxiety, because it not only shows that you want the patient to be as comfortable as possible, but also that you are competent and can be trusted. This, in turn, helps you to earn the confidence and respect of the patient.

Use the opportunity to introduce fresh ideas

Regardless if it’s the regular or temp hygienist, having the patient’s respect is crucial. Respect and trust go hand in hand. Once the hygienist has the patient’s respect, then you can give oral hygiene instructions that the patient will trust and be motivated to apply. Since the goal of every hygienist is to help their patients reach optimal oral health, patient education is huge. Being treated by a temporary hygienist can be an advantage in this regard. Perhaps you can share a new tip to help with flossing or recommend a different homecare product. Being seen by a new face, whose respect has been earned, could help the patient to be open to these new ideas.

Find your fit in a compatible workplace

Getting placed in an office that has experience working with temps can also be helpful. The dentist or office manager is already prepared for the possibility of disgruntled patients. Some offices choose not to disclose when a temp hygienist is working to discourage cancellations or rescheduling. Others may inform patients when they check-in with the front desk about the change. Which is why – when it comes to temporary or fill-in assignments – it’s important to work with an expert staffing resource that has the experience and knowledge to help find the right fit for you.

Stay positive and enjoy yourself

Try as you may, you won’t be able to please every patient – that’s okay and certainly not unique to temporary hygienists. On rare occasions, you may need to suggest rescheduling patients back with their usual hygienist. Giving them the alternative can encourage patients to reconsider whether they want to waste a trip and return another time. Though it’s not the most ideal outcome when a patient does decide to reschedule, keep a positive attitude and remind yourself that it’s not personal. For the most part, the majority of patients have no qualms with seeing a different hygienist. Throughout their time with a particular practice, it’s likely that a patient will have been treated by multiple dental professionals anyway.

So, whether it’s your first time temping or you’ve made a career in per diem work, just relax and keep these simple tips in mind; you may not get a nice smile in the first five minutes, but hopefully at the end of the hour, both you and your patient can walk out with a toothy grin.


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