Oral Health Group

Technology: Getting the most from practice management software

October 1, 2001
by Craig Wilson

One of the most expensive but underused tools in a dental office is the practice management software. Most modern software has a host of features and functions that are sometimes not even used at all. Here are a few things that can help you get the most from your investment.

Relocating Tasks


One of the important benefits of digital records is that they can be accessed from many locations simultaneously. Most practices install computers at the front desk first, because that’s where they were previously recording all of their schedule and payment information. The computer simply replaced the existing paper tools.

Real value from new technology comes from not only doing old things better, but by being able to do entirely new things. Computerization suddenly allows those tasks that HAD to be done at the front desk, to be done simultaneously in clinical areas, consult areas, back offices, and even from home. Take a look at what you are doing simply because that’s the way “it’s always been done”, and decide whether it makes sense to change. Adding new workstations or terminals in various locations is a nominal expense but can substantially increase productivity if it’s part of an overall plan.

Internal Communication

Creative use of even the most rudimentary software allows you to pass information about patients and cases on to other staff members. Many practices rely on additional handwritten notes, and/or verbal communication that could instead be added to the computerized patient record. Depending on the software, you may be able to attach notes to appointments, patients and/or procedures. You may also be able to send messages or email to other staff. Some creative practices have one or two “fake” patients who are scheduled in unused parts of the day for the purpose of passing information.

Some newer software takes internal communication to a whole new level. You can profile tasks and office procedures right in the software. Traditionally, new staff members have been faced with leaning office procedures and also learning to use the software. Newer systems incorporate office procedures right into the program, and help with staff orientation. The concept of a “virtual coach” or “knowledge management” is not new in the rest of the world, but is very new to dentistry.

Take a good look at how information travels throughout your office, and make an effort to streamline it through your computers. Other than your dental charts, there should be few handwritten notes and reminders.


Every practice management software includes some reporting and analysis functionality. Many practices don’t make use of even these rudimentary reports. Others use a carefully organized set of reports to watch for trends and anomalies. Specialists in particular need to know key indicators and statistics related to their referral base. Orthodontic offices, for example, need to watch for geographic trends, and plan their marketing and possible future expansion based on their patients’ postal codes. General dentists have a variety of important indicators that should be tracked but rarely are. The success of marketing efforts (both external and internal) needs to be tracked. Address information, demographic information, and procedure types, can all be analyzed, along with the regular financial information.

The specific process required to drill into your data to find patterns and trends varies depending on the specific practice management software in use. Some allow you to export data to an Excel spreadsheet for further analysis. Many programs are Microsoft Access based which allow you to work with the data directly using the Access software. Staff members can take a course or two to learn how to work with Access files to generate the reports you need. (Make sure that you’re always working with a COPY or your data.) Dentrix users have the option of purchasing an excellent additional module called “The Consultant” from a third party which runs key reports on the Dentrix database. Some offices have even employed database programmers to spend a few hours to develop query reports that run on their practice management data. The cost of a few custom reports is nominal, but the benefits can be significant. The important step is to determine what you need to track, and then put reporting in place to track it.

Practice management software and the data it accumulates can be much more helpful than most practices realize. The initial training that came with the software may not be enough to take full advantage of it’s potential. Most companies provide ongoing training, including more advanced sessions, and this might be worth looking into. There are also users groups for some software, where you can find valuable tips and information. Regardless, try to see the software as more than just a calendar and payment log, and you’ll be able to get more value from the investment. DPM

Craig Wilson is president of CompuDent Systems Inc., which provides custom computer, networking and technology solutions to dentists and the dental industry.

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