Integrating technology into your dental practice

Aug. 13, 2014
Much like the digital camera in the field of photography, technology is changing dentistry as we know it, bringing immediacy, flexibility, and efficiency to dental practices.

By Elliott Carson

Much like the digital camera in the field of photography, technology is changing dentistry as we know it, bringing immediacy, flexibility, and efficiency to dental practices. Dentists working from a digital platform can instantly share patient information among staff members, transfer files to the lab, and help increase case acceptance by visually showing patients areas of diagnosis and proposed treatment. With these new capabilities, digital practices are experiencing greater productivity, better communications with patients, and a more satisfied staff.

So if you have not yet transitioned to digital technology, the question is, what are you waiting for? Let's take a look at the numerous benefits of creating a digital practice.

Increasing efficiencies with a digital platform

A digital platform in dentistry means that all patient information, imaging systems, and CAD/CAM data work together in a connected pattern. Because of the real-time flow of information, the practice with a digital platform is capable of operating more efficiently with quicker delivery of procedures and a higher level of productivity.

For example, with practice-management software and digital radiography, you can share information instantaneously among multiple team members. Updates made by one staff member can be immediately accessed by another, which can reduce redundant tasks. Imagery and files can be instantly transferred to laboratories for quick turnaround in developing tooth replacements and dental apparatuses.

While the full range of capabilities of the digital office is still being explored, what is clear is that having the proper foundation in place is critical to ensuring the optimal functioning of the digital practice. This foundation includes dental chairs, dental furniture, integrated delivery systems, lights, and efficient sterilization systems, all in a clutter-free space that allows easy access and enhanced usability by staff members. When technology is added, you create a seamless environment where everything works together effortlessly to improve comfort for the patient and productivity for the practice.

Improving the patient experience

While a technology-based practice can provide many benefits on the business side, it's just as important to focus on the patient factor. Before making a major investment in new equipment, consider whether the technology will elevate the patient experience. Does it allow dental procedures that are less invasive or painful? Will it require less chair time and enable fewer and shorter appointments?

CAD/CAM technology, for example, enables same-day completion of procedures that used to require multiple visits, such as crowns. CAD/CAM can also make procedures less invasive, as doctors can be more precise and thus more conservative with their tooth preparation. In some cases, procedures are safer as well. For example, digital radiography delivers considerably lower radiation doses than traditional film-based X-ray.

Technology can also bring flexibility to the office schedule, helping doctors better accommodate their patients with nontraditional hours. With faster dental processes, it becomes easier to squeeze in the patient who is available only during “off” hours in the morning or evening, or perhaps continue to meet the needs of existing patients while cutting back practice hours and creating more personal time for the doctor.

Creating a competitive advantage

In this age of constant connectivity, systems and programs that enable you to reach out to your patients provide a powerful marketing tool for creating customer awareness and dialogue. Appointment reminders, recall notices, and postoperative communications can all now be automated. Websites, blogs, and e-newsletters can be used to communicate the importance and value of coming into the office regularly. Social media connections such as Facebook® and Twitter® allow you to stay visible to your patients and maintain a percentage of their “mindshare.”

Advancements in technology also offer a significant competitive advantage. The practice that can deliver more comfortable, less invasive procedures, shorter appointments, and same-day solutions will have greater appeal to patients. As new technologies are increasingly embraced by the dental community, it may become necessary to stay current with recent developments — not to jump ahead of the competition, but to avoid falling behind. Ultimately, the competitive advantage will be less about having technology in the practice, and more about how the practice makes the best use of it.

Recognizing return on investment

Return on investment is an important factor when considering new equipment and technology purchases. Yet while a financial return on investment is desirable, your ROI on these purchases cannot always be measured monetarily. Equipment and technology investments that improve efficiency for the doctor and staff and elevate the dental experience for the patient typically pay meaningful dividends in the form of increased cash flow, gratified staff, happy doctors, and satisfied patients.

At the same time, business-related equipment and technology purchases typically do qualify for the IRS Section 179 tax deduction, which allows you to write off the cost of your purchase during the year in which it was acquired and put into service. See the sidebar for more information.

Successfully integrating new technologies

One of the most complex aspects of making an equipment investment is knowing how best to integrate new technologies into your practice. When, exactly, should you make each equipment purchase, and how do you continue to stay current with evolving technologies without breaking your budget?

One useful guideline is the “digital waterfall” concept, with incorporation of different levels of technology in sequential steps. However, the appropriate steps for integrating new technologies into your practice depend on your particular situation and needs. The most effective way to outline your path toward new equipment integration is to create a “treatment plan” for your technology investment, similar to the treatment plans you create for your patients. Work with your equipment supplier to develop your practice goals and direction. Outline the order in which you want to integrate processes, and how you envision systems working together. Map out what you are trying to accomplish. Your technology treatment plan will become clear, and will be far more customized to your needs than a simple formula for equipment purchases.

Then base the pace or rate of technology upgrades on you and your staff's comfort level with new learnings and changing practice dynamics. Remember, there's a learning curve with new technology, so it's important to integrate at a pace that is challenging yet comfortable.

In summary

Today's patient is exposed to advanced technology every day, and expects to find the same high-tech welcoming environment at the dental office. Advances in dental equipment are rapidly making this high-tech practice a reality, with innovative equipment increasing efficiencies and delivering better services to patients. Dentists no longer have the luxury of investing in new equipment every 10 years. We are challenged to keep up with the pace of technology to remain productive, efficient, and competitive.

Consider creating an equipment and technology investment account, allocating a certain percentage of production each year to this fund to aid in making meaningful investments. With a well-thought-out treatment plan for technology integration and an investment fund for planned purchases, your practice will be well positioned to enjoy even greater success in the new digital age of dentistry.


Tax benefits of equipment purchases

One of the benefits of having an equipment and technology purchasing program is that you can plan your tax deductions along with your purchases. Under Section 179 of the IRS Tax Code, the entire cost of your business equipment purchase is tax deductible up to a specified maximum amount.*

Section 179 was introduced as a way to stimulate the economy by allowing business owners to deduct the full cost of a qualified asset in the year it is acquired, rather than spreading deductions over many years. Congress sets the deduction limit for each year. During its early years, Section 179 allowed a maximum accelerated tax deduction of $10,000 to $24,000. This amount has varied as needed to spur economic growth, and has recently ranged from $250,000 to a very generous $500,000 maximum annual deduction.

New and used business-related property purchased and put into service during the calendar year typically qualifies for the Section 179 deduction, including:

  • Equipment and technology purchases
  • Tangible personal property such as office furniture and computers
  • Property contained in or attached to a building (other than structural components), such as counters and signs
  • Certain off-the-shelf computer software

Small businesses can write off the full purchase amount of equipment according to annual deduction guidelines, provided the equipment is installed and ready to use by December 31 of the current tax year — even if the purchase is fully financed and not a single payment has been made.

Elliott Carson has served as Patterson Dental's director of marketing, core equipment, since 2012. In addition to supporting sales and marketing efforts in this area, he manages Patterson's partnerships with equipment manufacturers. Since joining Patterson in 2005, Mr. Carson has also held the positions of branch manager and CEREC specialist.
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