Is 'seamless integration' real?

by Jeffrey B. Dalin, DDS, FACD, FAGD, FICD

Don't worry; it will integrate seamlessly with your existing system!" You hear this term — "seamless integration" — tossed about a lot these days. For me, seamless integration is an overhyped marketing term. I prefer to work with solid terms, such as networking, bridging, and interfacing. Consider the following:

  • A network is a way for a group of computers to link together and share software and databases like 50 percent of us already do. We string together our computers in such a way that we can enter patient data in one place and view it in another. We share printers and we access the Internet from any computer.
  • Bridges (or links) are pieces of dedicated software written especially by the manufacturer of one system that allow you to access information from another system.
  • An interface is a software program that permits us to view a set of data. We use Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator to see Web pages. They are the interfaces that let us see the data.
  • In my experience, I have found that there is a lot of fear in dentistry about choosing the wrong system because it might not be compatible with another system. My advice is this: buy the software that works the best and meets your needs and do not worry about how it interacts with other programs.

Alpha Health Care — a superb program — was our practice-management system in my own practice from 1988 until last April. It was sophisticated and it managed my practice well. But it was not written in Windows and it was incompatible with most of the clinical software that was being developed. Three years ago, I decided I wanted to add digital radiography to my practice. I purchased the DEXIS system and used its software to set up a "clinical" network of PCs in our seven operatories.

Now I had two servers up and running: one for our practice-management system and one for digital radiography. Colleagues told me I was crazy to do this. How could I justify two separate systems running at the same time? They could not "seamlessly integrate" with each other. I thought hard about the possible benefits that I might gain if the two systems were integrated together.

After a great deal of analysis, I realized that all I really wanted to do was to incorporate radiographic or photographic images into letters to my patients, other dentists, or third-party payers. DEXIS already had a solution: DEXwrite software allows me to capture images from an intraoral or digital camera and store them alongside my radiographic images. When I send out a letter to a patient, dentist, or third-party payer, I simply "drop in" an image with a click and a drag of the mouse.

I now have a Windows-based practice-management program, PracticeWorks. This is another sophisticated practice-management system. The program developer has been cooperative in bridging its software with several different clinical systems. I am using Practice Works and DEXIS side by side on just one powerful server.

The Dental Informatics Committee of the ADA has been developing uniform standards so that systems from different manufacturers can work together. The future will be "Interoperability." Products from XYZ Company will be interoperable with those from ABC Company. Until we work in the new world of interoperability, choose your technology wisely. Select the very best products in their respective categories, regardless of the source. Look for properly functioning bridges and interfaces. Ask for references from other doctors in your area with the same setup that you are considering. Seamless integration is a myth. Interoperability is coming. Meanwhile, live cautiously, but progressively, in a world of networks, bridges, and interfaces!

Jeffrey B. Dalin, DDS, FACD, FAGD, FICD, practices general dentistry in St. Louis. He also is the editor of St. Louis Dentistry Magazine and spokesman and critical-issue-response-team chairman for the Greater St. Louis Dental Society. His address on the Internet is www.dfdasmiles.com. Contact him by email at jeff@dfdasmiles.com, by phone at (314) 567-5612, or by fax at (314) 567-9047.

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