Surviving the switch

The most difficult transition for most offices with a new computer system is simply learning the system (some people don`t even know how to use a mouse) while, at the same time, keeping the daily operations of the practice going. This also can be called "survival." Often this transition takes so much effort that staff members are exhausted just getting by and never make the effort to learn or use advanced features of the software.

Larry Emmott, DDS

The most difficult transition for most offices with a new computer system is simply learning the system (some people don`t even know how to use a mouse) while, at the same time, keeping the daily operations of the practice going. This also can be called "survival." Often this transition takes so much effort that staff members are exhausted just getting by and never make the effort to learn or use advanced features of the software.

Switching from one computer system to another can be extremely frustrating. The doctor and the staff must learn a whole new program. At the same time, data must be transferred from the old system while continuing to do dentistry, run a business, and maintain cash-flow. Transitions are never easy, but there are some guidelines that will help make it as smooth as possible.

Data transfer: There are two basic issues with data transfer: How much data do you need and how will you input it to the new system? You can transfer most critical data from one system to another electronically. Usually anything that can be downloaded as an ASCII file can be transferred. However, it is unlikely you will be able to transfer all the information such as old notes, schedules, or recall information, but that`s OK.

The minimum you should transfer is patient census information - names, family relationships, addresses, phone and Social Security numbers, insurance, etc. The next items to transfer electronically are patient balances (aged if possible). If you can transfer those items, you will be doing well. Other data that you may want to transfer is insurance plan information, addresses, and features.

Electronic data transfer is fast and will save a lot of time and money in data entry, but there are some potential problems as well. If you do an electronic data transfer, watch out for "dirty data." Eventually, every office develops dirty data - information that is out-of-date, redundant, or just plain wrong.

You can handle dirty data in several ways. One is just to ignore it and transfer it anyway. Better yet, print the data you wish to transfer, go over it, and note incorrect or redundant information. Then go back in and delete all the dirty data from the old system before making the transfer. This will give you cleaner data, but it takes a lot of time and money. The third option is not to do an electronic transfer, but to start with a whole new set of data.

Start over: There is a simple way to get started without spending weeks entering data. First, enter the names and census data, including account balances, of all the people who owe you money. Then enter all the people who are scheduled in the next two to three weeks. You also can enter all the tooth-chart and treatment-plan information at this time if you wish. Now all you have to do is keep a week ahead by entering the next week`s patients as you go.

Entering all new data will help clean up a dirty database, but again it means time and money. Whether you clean up and do an electronic transfer or start from scratch, it will take time and money to get a good, clean, up-to-date set of data.

Keep it going: The next idea is really simple, but people often miss it. There is no need to trash the old system once the new one is in place. Keep it up and running. That doesn`t mean you do dual entry and try to use both systems simultaneously. That`s a sure recipe for disaster! Set a day to "go live" with the new system and just do it. Keep the old system available for looking up old information, like last year`s treatment or what the insurance paid six months ago. That`s why you don`t need to transfer every piece of old data - you can always access it from the old system. You will find that the need to look up information in the old system will quickly pass, and you will rarely access it after a few months. Nonetheless, it is there as an archive.

You probably will use the old system for continuing-care recall for the first six to 12 months as people and information are added to the new system.

The future is coming and it will be amazing.

Dr. Larry Emmott is a practicing general dentist in Phoenix, Ariz. He also is an entertaining, award-winning professional speaker. He has addressed hundreds of professional groups. He is a featured speaker at the Las Vegas Institute, and is a member of AADPA. He has written many articles for national magazines on dentistry, computer use, and management. He produces a monthly newsletter on management and computer use in the dental office. He has developed and maintains an Internet Web site at www.drlarryemmott.com; his e-mail address is emmott@primenet.com. Dr. Emmott is a member of the American Academy of Dental Practice Administration.

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