Take the money and run

Feb. 1, 2003
We've all seen the "Fast Lane" and other debit systems that are used on the nation's toll ways. Drive through, and the amount owed is whisked out of your account electronically.

Paul Feuerstein, DMD

We've all seen the "Fast Lane" and other debit systems that are used on the nation's toll ways. Drive through, and the amount owed is whisked out of your account electronically. Some of you might have a Speedpass that allows you to pay for gasoline and convenience items at Mobil and Exxon stations.

Something similar is on the horizon for dental offices. The banking industry is well on its way to changing the methods we use to receive payment from our patients.

A recent article by Evan Schwartz in MIT's Technology Review reported the present and future of billing and money exchange. Some of the ideas he presents could permanently change our accounting practices and collection procedures. No more "left my checkbook at home" excuses with these systems.

The Speedpass device is a forerunner of this technology. This device transmits a code that is picked up by a receiver in the gas pump. The purchase information then goes to a credit card authorization machine, similar to those used in our offices. This in turn is passed on to a central processing area, which authorizes payment from the assigned account. As this technology expands, you will see it in supermarkets, McDonalds, and other retail establishments. There are even plans to incorporate this device into a Timex watch — it keeps on ticking and spending your money! It's not too far-out to expect that this technology will eventually be incorporated for use in the dental office. Just think: A Speedpass-type receiver at the front desk — or even in the door frame! — that captures payment as the patient departs.

Another payment option on the horizon is the "smart card." Credit card companies are beginning to embed microchips in the plastic that are actually small computers minus keyboards or monitors. These microchips, which cost under $5, can actually run simple programs. They also can hold personal information, photos, and even financial information. They have superior encryption and are far more secure than traditional magnetic strips. (Perhaps this could be part of the HIPAA solution?)

Online billing and fund transfers are still more advanced methods that definitely look promising for dental offices. Most people have lost their fear of sending credit card information over the Internet. Adapting this for the dental practice would merely require setting up a direct, secure Web site, or a program such as Pay Pal.

Schwartz's article also reports on the speculation that a blend of smart cards and transmitters could have consumer preferences embedded in their memory. For example, a consumer could enter a clothing store and activate flashing lights on hangers that announce clothes in the correct size and even color preferences. Let's brainstorm: In the future, a patient who is looking for whitening services drives by and activates a sensor. With that "alert," he comes in, has the procedure performed, and walks out, with the fee immediately credited to the office.

While researching these devices, I came across Jtech, a company that makes computerized pagers primarily for the restaurant industry. This is a combination palm unit and pager that allows wait staff and management to monitor all aspects of the business; it even sends an alert if the toilet paper is running low. In my June 2002 column ("Talking Heads"), I discussed using headsets for intraoffice communication. Computerized pagers might be yet another alternative to explore for this purpose.

Finally, IBM has devised a system, eSuds.net, that currently is in use at Boston University's dorms. The system allows students to monitor the laundry room via a Web site. Students can check for machine availability, input commands, and pay with a school-issued smart card. Could there be a lateral application in our profession? Is the doctor running late? What flavor fluoride will you want?

The implications of technology's application to daily life are mind-boggling. However, consumer demand will continue to drive new innovations, and dentists must be open to the constant evolution that is technology.

Dr. Paul Feuerstein installed one of dentistry's first computers when he placed a system in his office in 1978, and he has been fascinated by technology ever since. For more than 20 years, he has taught courses on technology throughout the country. He is a mainstay at technology sessions in New England, including annual appearances at the Yankee.Dental Congress, and has been a part of the ADA's Technology Day since its inception. A general practitioner in North Billerica, Mass., since 1973, Dr. Feuerstein maintains a Web site (www.computersinden tistry.com) and can be reached by email at [email protected].

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