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Is it “Just a Cleaning?”


I have been on this soapbox before. If you want to change patients’ perceptions about the importance of hygiene treatment, then you can’t refer to these appointments as “cleanings.” Each time I have made this proclamation, dentists nod their heads and tell me they don’t say the word cleaning. Um…well, maybe. It’s just their websites do. Every dental website I’ve ever reviewed lists “cleanings” on the menu of services and most often, the word cleaning is followed by the phrase, “and dental exams.”

Words shape and reflect our attitudes and therefore behavior. So, if your own website tells patients that these appointments are only cleanings and then further implies that their real value is that they also include exams, what are you really saying about your philosophy of hygiene treatment?

Furthermore, even if you swear to me that you don’t personally utter the word “cleaning,” I bet your staff – especially your front desk team – do use that term when they want to reactivate hygiene patients. And while you’re investigating, you should also check out what your written communication (postcards, texts, emails) calls these appointments.

Why is this such common practice? It seems to me that dental professionals have taken the easy road. Your team want patients to quickly understand this appointment and every patient “gets” the word cleaning. The problem is that this term devalues hygiene and suggests that it’s only a cosmetic procedure. To make up for this, sometimes dental professionals will equivocate and refer to them as “professional cleanings” and my personal, least favorite term, “deep cleanings.”

These terms do not help matters. Is a professional cleaning at your dentist like a professional cleaning at your car wash? Something I could do at home, for free, but I pay someone else to do periodically? Is a deep cleaning, extra suds?

What Should You Call Hygiene Appointments Then?

I’m going to go wild here, and suggest you refer to them as hygiene treatment or periodontal treatment. You know what the worst thing can happen? A patient could say, “Huh? What’s that?” And then you get to elevate the patient’s understanding of what hygiene treatment really is and how it is more than just a cleaning.

Your Team Needs to Buy-In

Your personal vow is wonderful but your team has more contact with patients and they need to upgrade their language even more than you do. Team members need to be motivated to change their language and they need reinforcement to support this change. It may sound obvious, but people only change their behavior when they perceive a benefit to changing and perceive some drawbacks to NOT changing. Thus, we have carrots and sticks.

Team Meeting Activity

  1. At your next team meeting, ask a hygienist to list all the things she does with a patient during a typical appointment. Write these procedures on a whiteboard or flipchart. Next, ask each individual to write on their own papers, the potential benefits to the patient of these procedures. This list should answer the question: Why would a patient want this?
  2. Read these lists aloud to create a master list on the board and label it: Benefits of the Hygiene Visit.
  3. Next, write the word “cleaning” on the board and ask the team to brainstorm what this term connotes to them.
  4. Then ask the million-dollar question: What are the problems with describing hygiene treatment as “cleanings?”
  5. Propose a new term: If we don’t use the word cleaning to describe this appointment, what word or phrase could we commit to using? How should we respond when a patient uses the word?
  6. Now comes the carrot and sticks. Ask the team to create a reward game. A suggestion could be a penny or marble goes into a team jar whenever the new term is used. When the jar is filled, the team gets an agreed upon amount for a catered lunch or gift card.

Then decide on the “stick.” If you mistakenly say cleaning in the office, you either owe the practice something or a token is taken out of the reward jar. Review the progress of the jar at huddles and ask for good/bad examples from the previous day when the jar was either filled or emptied.

I have a rich background in leading team workshops. If you’re not a fan of training the team yourself, Schedule a call to hear how I can help and lead the training for you. I believe you deserve top-notch consulting at an affordable price.

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“As an Office Manager, I’ve seen a great difference in my practice since starting with Sharyn. Three years ago our staff was in turmoil with a lot of infighting and gossip and some jealousy directed towards me.

I had given up because everything I did was judged. Now I have learned to have more one-to-one communication and by being more vulnerable with individuals I found my leadership voice. As a team, we’re all focused on the same goals.

Last year, in August we produced $88,000. This year we’re on track to produce $111,000 this month. I know it’s because we learned how to follow through with patients and communicate our expectations while building our systems.

Sharyn has gotten us out of our comfort zone and inspired us to dream bigger and it works.”

–Sharon St Pierre, Sperbeck Dental Care

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