Benefits of the software industry revolution

Jan. 1, 2002

by Scott Benjamin, DDS

As a practicing dentist who has been very involved in the field of dental technologies, the recent acquisitions and reorganizations that have occurred in dental practice-management software, while not surprising, are a concern for myself and many of my colleagues.

More than 20 years ago, I started using the Floryan Practice Account Management System on a Commodore Business Machine computer. This computer system operated on a double floppy disk-drive system and a proprietary Operating System. (The hard drive and DOS architecture had not been invented yet).

Shortly after incorporating this system into my practice, I was told that I needed to change or "update" my system to the new universal standards that were being established by IBM and a new company called Microsoft. With some minor hesitation, I changed my system to this new standard, using an IBM Ccomputer with a DOS operating system and a huge 10 MB (that's right, 10 megabyte!) hard drive with 64KB of RAM. The hardware cost was over $7,000 (in 1980s dollars) for a single computer!

Throughout the '80s, the Floryan System evolved and was bought several times. It went through numerous name changes, including The Fielding System, Systems for HealthCare, and, finally, Premier Systems. As a member of the company's advisory board, I helped guide them in the development and testing of programs, one of which was electronic insurance-claims processing in the mid 1980s. This spun off a company called Electronic Claims & Funding Inc., which was then acquired by MeDe America. That company has since merged with another company to become WebMD.

As dental technology and the Windows operating systems evolved in the 1990s I felt it was in my practice's best interest to migrate into this new environment. Doing my research on the various products available at the time, my practice settled on a little known software product called PracticeWorks.

The same type of evolution has occurred with PracticeWorks. It was acquired by IDT (Integrated Dental Technologies), which was then acquired by Biodental, which was then acquired by Zila Inc., which was then sold to Infocure Inc., etc. Consolidation seems to be the name of the game in the dental industry today. Dentsply has completed its acquisition of Degussa, making it the largest dental company in the United States. 3M and ESPE have completed their merger, and Kerr has been buying some companies.

I lecture, write, and present programs to dentists around the world. Lately, every audience is asking questions about how the acquisition of the software companies will affect them, especially with the spinoff of the dental division of Infocure into PracticeWorks Inc. and the acquisition of SoftDent. I spoke with Jim Price, the president/CEO of PracticeWorks Inc., about the direction of the company.

The company provides practice- management software and services to the dental community. Like many other companies in this service industry, its main focus is on client service and developing ongoing relationships with dental clients.

Practice Works provides information-technology solutions for dentists, orthodontists, and oral and maxillofacial surgeons. Product offerings include practice-management applications, business-to-business e-commerce services, electronic data interchange (EDI) services, and ongoing maintenance, support, and training related to all products.

During the past 18 months, the company has acquired many of the small dental-software companies. They have worked hard to consolidate these individual companies into one organization focused on customer service.

There was some disruption during the transition that was unavoidable in light of the magnitude of the task. PracticeWorks has now stabilized these products and is continuing to invest in the support of existing software products, while providing a logical and cost-effective migration path to the next-generation software. For example, subscription-based pricing enables dentists to make a smooth financial transition into the next generation. A small investment up front allows practices to receive complete dental software, training, technical support, and upgrades. More importantly, the upgrade path also includes any future software platform changes in an operating system or database engine. Subscription pricing is basically an insurance policy against technology obsolescence.

Technical support for all products has been moved under one roof at the company headquarters in Atlanta.

SoftDent LLC currently is a wholly-owned subsidiary of PracticeWorks, Inc., and its software is part of the core-product offering. PracticeWorks, Inc. will continue to develop, support, and actively market SoftDent and PracticeWorks softwares as their next-generation product platforms for the general dental market.

The Internet is a tool that will definitely be a part of the future. However, I don't believe that the state of communications bandwidth or the reliability of the Internet are at levels necessary to be fully utilized. ASP technology is suitable today in areas of e-commerce and the integration of communications with patients for things such as appointment inquiries, patient pre-registration, financial-status inquiries and general messaging to the practice. These functions enhance efficiency and productivity, but are not mission-critical in the event the Internet connection goes down. When the market is ready and the reliability of the Internet permits, software providers will have their ASP products ready.

PracticeWorks, Inc. has been a work in progress, but it's definitely an innovator! I am sure the company will continue to offer the technological support that their customers need and deserve. I also hope this information will dispel any concerns you might have and answer many of your questions about the company's focus for the future.

Dr. Scott Benjamin is a graduate of SUNY Buffalo School of Dental Medicine and has been in full-time private practice in rural, upstate New York for more than 20 years. He has been a leader in computerized dental-practice management since its infancy and has been a speaker at major dental meetings throughout the United States and Canada. He is president of Advanced Integration & Mentoring Inc., a company whose mission is to provide hands-on assistance and guidance to dental offices in properly incorporating advanced technologies into their practices.

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