Computers are essential business tools that allow you to quickly realize some big benefits within your practice - from saving time and money to increasing productivity and enhancing patient relationships. During the last decade, computer technology - as it relates to dentistry - has advanced at an impressive rate as more and more dentists integrate computers into their practices. Still, some dentists feel they would rather invest in new dental equipment, such as lasers, believing it to be the key to success. While state-of-the-art equipment is important to stay current with procedures, if a practice can’t access information quickly and manage processes in an efficient and effective manner, the practice’s ability to develop and achieve its potential can be diminished. This is why integrating computers into a practice can help. Let’s take a closer look at the evolution - or revolution - of computers in dentistry, and discover how a practice that may be hesitant to invest in this type of technology can safely, easily, and affordably jump into the Information Age.
The beginning of a revolution
Until the late 1970s or early 1980s, before computers were introduced into the dental practice, information was tracked manually. Countless hours were spent filing and retrieving data, as well as attempting to manage and maintain these manual systems. The problems practices encountered with this system of management included information loss, inefficiency, human error, and increased stress. Once practices became computerized, information management and control was literally thrust into supersonic mode. Today, we have the capability to fully integrate all relevant information - from patient history and financial data to photographic and digital radiographic data. The outcome has been a significant enhancement in patient education, case presentation, and clinical diagnosis. In fact, we are reaching new levels of patient communication and acceptance of treatment.
Benefiting the team
Computerization eliminates much of the manual, time-consuming, and laborious tasks that can slow a team down on a daily basis. For instance, practices that accept insurance assignment can now streamline the entire process with computer software - from obtaining an estimate of benefits to tracking and collecting payment. Computers also allow practices to capture and store more information for a longer time. For example, physical radiographs discolor and degrade over time. Meanwhile, radiographs, which are stored digitally, can last indefinitely.
One of the greatest benefits of computer integration is that it gives the entire team one point of access for information. This lends itself to accuracy and consistency in communication. Data is stored in a central location, or hub. If a practice experiences staff turnover, critical information, or access to it, doesn’t walk out the door with the departing team member. Computerization also reduces team stress. Because managing information is easier and less time-consuming, staff members can dedicate more energy to building patient relationships. Most software systems allow you to track personal information on patients in the “notes” section on the patient screen. This gives staff members the opportunity to improve relationships and increase patient satisfaction by personalizing the experience each patient has in the practice.
Another significant benefit to computer integration within the dental practice is the ability to measure and monitor performance. Most software applications include reporting and measurement functions. With a simple click of the mouse, practices are able to get accurate reports on their performance in a variety of areas. They can monitor and evaluate metrics such as yearly, daily, and hourly production, A/R and cash flow, patient retention, and case acceptance rates. Plus, when changes are made to enhance production or efficiency, computer-generated reports easily can be analyzed to determine how the new programs are working for the practice. Thus, you know where you’ve been, where you are currently, and what you need to do to move forward.
Information management and oral health
The benefits to the team are important. But ultimately, we want to use this ability to capture, contain, and manage information effectively to help patients make the right choices for oral health. Computer integration within the practice can help accomplish this, and subsequently increase case acceptance in several ways. The first way is by helping educate patients on what’s going on in their mouths and having them “own” their treatment. In the past, we have relied on verbal communication. But that only provides marginal ability to communicate and motivate patients to proceed with treatment. With computer integration, we have immediate access to visual and auditory tools that can aid in patient education and help patients understand the consequences of delaying or declining care. A patient actually can see, up close and in person, what’s going on in his or her mouth. And, as trite as the saying might be, it’s true that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Via computer, we also can access online patient education videos, which are another effective visual tool to help patients gain knowledge and understanding. With this process, we help patients co-diagnose the state of their respective disease, and get them involved in the diagnostic process. This helps them to “buy into” the treatment recommendations that are being made. If patients understand the condition that exists, they are more likely to agree to treatment recommendations. In turn, the practice will observe an increase in production.
The second way computer integration can help increase case acceptance is by eliminating most patients’ number one objection to proceeding with recommended dentistry - cost - before it can even become a concern. Computers allow access to healthcare financing in literally seconds. Thus, there’s no more lag time in practices while someone researches the information. It’s more efficient, quicker, and more accessible. At Jameson Management, we tell practices to get out of the banking business. When you have direct access to a patient financing company, like CareCredit via the Internet, there’s really no reason to deal with trying to provide patients financing in-house. With a few simple clicks of a mouse, you can quickly fill in the requested patient information, and get an immediate credit decision that you can share with patients. So, if fear of cost is the patient’s primary concern, having this information immediately helps to overcome the objection. Then we can get a patient’s approval and move forward with treatment.
Integrating computers into the practice
There are four important components necessary to integrate computer technology successfully into your practice: computer terminals, an effective computer network, efficient practice-management software, and a good back-up system. Here is a quick overview of what to look for in these components, and how each can be integrated into your practice for maximum effectiveness.
➨Computer terminals - At a minimum, every practice should have one terminal in the business area and one in the consultation room. For optimal results, chairside terminals should be integrated as well, so immediate access to information is available in all areas of the practice, and patient education can be done throughout their entire experience.
➨Computer networks - There are several critical factors in creating an effective network within the practice. First, dentists need to have an efficient professional group to help install and maintain the hardware. If the network is not configured properly, a practice can run into problems.
➨ Practice management software - The second part of the network equation is the practice-management software. I prefer software with vertically integrated capabilities (which means that it can handle multiple systems within the practice such as scheduling, communications, financing, reporting, etc.) from a reputable company that provides exceptional, ongoing support of its product. When you are making this important purchase, ask for a list of users from the company. Contact those people to find out what type of support and training they have received. A practice can accomplish many functions such as capturing images with a digital camera, periodontal charting, and patient records with most of the major management software programs available. But what a practice really needs is a company that will be there when called upon for assistance. In my opinion, this is the number one aspect to consider when choosing software because the software will quickly become the hub, or brain, of your practice.
➨ Back-up system - The final, and perhaps most important component, is a back-up system. Practices have the potential for loss if they are not monitoring the back-up system or checking the back-up tape regularly. In fact, Jameson Management recommends an even more effective back-up system that transfers information through high-speed connections to an offsite location.
The future of computer integration
The Internet gives dentists the opportunity to have a technologically advanced practice. Imagine patients being able to view - via computer from a remote location - their oral health, treatment plans, and next-phase recommendations via a practice’s Web site. Imagine your patients asking questions when it’s convenient for them. Patients can take online educational courses on cosmetic procedures, or automatically receive communications from the practice on appointment reminders as well as other patient education topics. The possibilities seem endless. But one thing is certain. As computers continue to get faster, smaller, and more intelligent, dentists must learn how to leverage this informational business tool to the benefit of patients, their practices, and themselves.
Dr. John Jameson is chairman of the board of Jameson Management, Inc., an international dental consulting firm. Representing JMI, he writes for numerous dental publications and provides research for manufacturers and marketing companies, as well as lectures worldwide on the leadership and integration of technology into the dental practice. He also manages the technology phase of the consulting program carried out by JMI consultants in the United States, Canada, and Europe. He may be reached at (877) 369-5558, or by visiting www.jamesonmanagement.com.