Linda L. Miles, CSP, CMC
Technology has and will continue to change inner-office communication. Practices that are resistant to change may find their profits declining at a very rapid rate within the next three years. Patients judge the quality of the care by technology, especially patients who have evolved with technology in their own careers.
In the 1950s and 1960s, patients announced their arrival by pressing a bell or buzzer beside a frosted, sliding-glass window. In those days, dentists worked independently or with one dental "nurse." In the 1970s and 1980s, the sliding-glass window and bell gave way to the open-concept business area and sign-in sheet. Today, there`s a greeter, who also serves as a computer-data person, updating changes in mailing addresses, home and work numbers, and insurance information.
By the year 2000, a "dental concierge" will hand the patient a small computer keyboard and the patient will key in his/her name and account number, while the dental concierge serves a beverage of the patient`s choice. The money for today`s visit will travel via wire transfer from the patient`s account to the doctor`s account. In fact, patients will apply for a credit check as part of their routine check-in. Financing availability will not alter the patient`s needs nor the diagnosis, but will establish upfront those patients who need phased-in treatment to match their financial situations.
The dental practice of the future will have terminals at chairside, replacing the light-alert systems.The computer will create a message that is sent to each treatment room - "Mrs. Parker is here to see Lisa in Hygiene Room 2; she`s five minutes early," or "Mrs. Jones is on her way for a crown-prep in Dr. Allen`s Room 1. She called from her cell phone to say she will be five minutes late."
The hygienist will review her findings with the doctor, including periodontal health of the patient and case-acceptance level, based on questions she asks prior to the dentist entering the operatory. This eliminates the hygienist verbally explaining the information after the doctor sits down to do the exam.
Voice-activated charting systems will save many minutes per patient. The paperless office will be a reality.
Telephones, of course, remain a vital part of the technological revolution in dentistry. The related article at right explores one scenario.
Practices in the 1960s were thrilled with their own copy machines. Today, an office without a fax seems antiquated. The question most frequently asked by dentists is, "Why do I need a fax?" The answer is, "You`ll wonder how you ever got along without it!" Immediate communication with specialists, insurance companies, labs, supply companies and meeting planners are just a few uses of a fax.
E-mail and the Internet are both taking the communication world by storm. E-mail is very instrumental in reducing interruptions from person to person. Leaving e-mail messages, whether from doctor to doctor or from location to location in multi-location practices, solves many of the common communication glitches. Besides improving efficiency and communication, e-mail increases office morale, as everyone feels informed and receives accurate information. Internet shopping will allow dentists to shop for materials, seminars, equipment and labs they may not have access to presently. They will be able to download research information and continuing education materials at convenient times. This facet of technology will add a new dimension to the information highway.
Years ago, pre-appointed recall patients addressed postcards to themselves. Today, computers generate the postcards daily or weekly. Tomorrow, computers will generate the card and enter advance telephone reminders into an automatic dial system. This system will confirm patient appointments and have the capability of reappointing the patient, based on a multiple-appointment offer of press 1 for Tuesday, (date) at 10:00 AM, press 2 for Thursday (date) at 9:00 AM, etc. The appointment system of the future also will have the capability of determining the most likely candidates to fill the open spaces, eliminating those who can`t come in on short notice.
Chairside technology, such as CD-ROM interactive-patient education, is another step in total patient education and third-party selling. Intraoral cameras probably are the number one, best educational tool for enhanced treatment acceptance. To compete in the 21st century, dental practices must go full circle with modern technology today. With new technology, the future is now.
The author is an internationally-recognized consultant and speaker on practice and staff development. She is founder and chief executive officer of Miles and Associates in Virginia Beach, VA, and can be reached at (800) 922-0866.
Five telephones ringing at once
Telephone technology also is changing the way the business office functions. In years past, a dentist might have a three-line system and survive. Today, a solo practice must have at least five lines. If the practice is busy enough to warrant two business-staff employees (over $40,000 a month), six lines are recommended. The first two lines are "patient-ready," always open for incoming calls. They are lifelines to the outside world and should never be used for outgoing calls.
Line 3 is designated as the bookkeeper`s line and is answered by the financial coordinator. This is the telephone number that should be printed on every statement or insurance form that leaves the office. By doing this, calls pertaining to billing and insurance don`t interrupt the scheduling coordinator or keep those two major lines busy.
Line 4 is a private number used for all outgoing calls. Line 5 is for the fax and line 6 is a computer modem. Trying to run a 1997-and-beyond dental business with a 1977 telephone system is a costly mistake!
Telephone systems that offer a menu of press 1, press 2, etc., have not been widely accepted. People are busy and become easily annoyed when they perceive a lack of customer service in a business that previously featured direct telephone contact with a "real person."
Practices that have gone to this computerized answering service report a decrease in stress for the business staff, but an increase in patient complaints, with many callers hanging up, resulting in a decline in practice growth.