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Data management: Time for dental practices to catch up

Sept. 7, 2021
The medical profession has been able to digitally communicate between practitioners for years. It's time for the dental profession to catch up, and DSOs are leading the way.

By Kiltesh Patel, MBA 

Imagine you twist your ankle. You might visit an emergency room, get an x-ray, follow up with your family doctor, then complete a course of physical therapy. Throughout your medical journey, your files and test results are not kept on a single clipboard that’s passed from practitioner to practitioner. Instead, your records are handled digitally, using formats that are easily transmitted from one doctor to the next if everything goes as planned,, ensuring they’re able to provide you the best treatment for your specific needs.

For modern health care, data interoperability is a must-have. Since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) mandated record digitization in 2009, hospitals and clinics have moved quickly to implement their own data management systems, and then, a little more laboriously, have worked to ensure that they can share data with one another. It wasn’t always easy, but it’s been broadly successful: today, using industry data standards such as SMART and FHIR,1 it’s easier than ever for authorized health-care professionals to access and share information about a patient, provide patients with easy digital access to their own information, and deliver customized and consistent care across a wide range of touchpoints.

In the world of dentistry, however, things look a bit different. There is no standard protocol for exchanging dental data, so dentists are often reduced to emailing files back and forth, calling one another by phone, or faxing files from one location to another.

Dentistry is a team sport

That might not sound like such a big deal; after all, do dentists really need to talk to one another and share data in the same way that hospitals, primary care doctors, and specialists do? But the reality is that dentistry is a team sport just as much as any other area of medicine. That might not be immediately apparent for patients who see their regular dentist simply for a routine checkup every few months. But patients with more complex problems are likely shuttling between orthodontists, pediatric dentists, oral surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other specialists who need to share information and manage complex patient needs effectively with multiple team members and locations.

Then there’s the fact that the structure of dental practices is changing. In 1999, almost two-thirds of dentists worked in solo practices; but by 2019, barely half of dentists were working in solo practices.2 Instead, many are drawn to dental service organizations (DSOs) and other group practice models that allow them to focus on treating patients and outsourcing many of the headaches that come with running a dental business.

Young dentists especially like this model, with less than one third of dentists aged 35 or less currently working in solo practice. There’s little doubt that DSOs and group practices are the future for the dental industry. But to deliver efficient services across large numbers of interconnected practices, both DSOs and individual practices will need a data upgrade that allows them to share information and create software and services that can be applied in any practice, anywhere, without the need for costly and time-consuming integration by IT or data specialists.

The stakes are high

The need for smarter, more efficient data sharing is especially clear given the volumes of data that health-care practitioners of all kinds, including dentists, are now generating. About 30% of the world’s data is generated by the health-care industry, and health-care data volume is now expanding at an eye-popping 36% compound annual growth rate,3 a full 10% faster than data growth in financial organizations and 11% faster than the media and entertainment sector.

That explosion of dental data places an enormous strain on frontline caregivers and solo practitioners. Manually managing large volumes of data means more paperwork, which means less time for everything else. With more than a quarter of dental professionals already thought to be at high risk of burnout,4 there is an urgent need for new tools that can give dentists more time to focus on both self-care and caring for patients.

DSOs are already doing that in many areas of dental practice and making it easier for practices to efficiently manage the business side of their operations, reduce their overhead, and maximize reimbursement rates. But to make the DSO model sustainable and scalable for an increasingly data-driven industry, there needs to be ways to drive data interoperability and create more standardized systems for managing dental records and practice management infrastructure.

Driving change

As the connection between dental practices, DSOs have helped drive modernization across the industry, and because they are selective about the practices they admit, DSOs have helped to improve standards and patient care for everyone. Now, though, it’s time to bring dental data management into the 21st century, using unified cloud infrastructure to deliver the kind of data interoperability that practices need in order to scale, reduce the strain on providers, and improve patient outcomes.

By using such tools to turn data into well-organized warehouses and data lakes instead of disparate practice managements, and using AI tools to efficiently analyze that data, DSOs can unlock new value for practices. With well-connected, interoperable data, DSOs can help practices figure out how likely any given patient is to turn up for their next appointment or assess the chance that a patient will comply with their treatment plan.

The bottom line is that managing data across multiple practices and systems should not be like pulling teeth. The dental industry doesn’t have clear standards to enable and support data sharing, so it’s up to DSOs and individual practices to build out the cloud infrastructure that’s needed to facilitate success for dental providers and their patients.

References

  1. Muoio D. Excited to share Apple Health Records with a doctor? Thank industry data interoperability standards like SMART and FHR. Fierce Healthcare. June 30, 2021. https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/digital-health/excited-to-share-apple-health-records-a-doctor-thank-industry-data-standards-like
  2. Charting growth in dental service organizations. Decisions in dentistry. March 19, 2021. https://decisionsindentistry.com/article/charting-growth-in-dental-service-organizations/
  3. The healthcare data explosion. RBCCM. https://www.rbccm.com/en/gib/healthcare/episode/the_healthcare_data_explosion
  4. Huri M, Sahin SK, Eren H, Bagis N. Factors associated with burnout in dentistry from occupational therapy perspective. A systematic review. Research Gate. March 2107, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315743851_Factors_Associated_with_Burnout_in_Dentistry_from_Occupational_Therapy_Perspective_A_Systematic_Review
Based in Sacramento, California, Kiltesh Patel, MBA, is the cofounder and CEO of tab32, a leading full service technology platform for patient-first cloud dental electronic health record software, Dental practice management system, and open data warehousing. Earlier in his career, Patel worked as an informatics product manager at the University of California, Davis–School of Medicine. He served as the director of technology/medical informatics for health sciences at the University of California, San Diego, where he received his MBA.

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