December 1, 2006
by Craig Wilson, B.Eng
Over the next few years, the gap between successful and unsuccessful businesses in all industries will continue to widen. Businesses providing dental services will be no different. The more successful businesses will continue to understand that technology is a tool to grow and enable their businesses, and they will continue to evolve and do well. Those who cannot grasp the importance of technology and harness its use will increasingly fail, not simply because technology is an increasingly integrated part of every business model, but also because the ability to adapt and change is becoming more critical as the speed with which change occurs accelerates.
The dental information technologies that have changed many dental practices during the last decade, such as digital imaging and radiography, practice management via computer, and virtual collaboration between locations, practices, and providers were predictable by observing the trends in other industries. Moving forward, dental practices will be changed during the next few years by some of the technologies and trends that are shaping other areas of the economy.
Now that IP Telephony or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has evolved from an interesting possibility to an enabling technology, companies are exploring the benefits of convergence. VoIP or IP Telephony, the routing of voice conversations over the Internet or other IP-based networks, has many benefits. One of the major benefits of VoIP is that by routing long distance calls through the Internet an organization can achieve significant cost savings. Many dental offices however don’t make many long distance calls, and those cost savings are therefore not an appropriate reason to install a VoIP system. It is no surprise therefore that VoIP adoption in dental practices has been slow. With good planning and thoughtful execution however, a conversion to IP Telephony can let organizations reap substantial operational benefits as well as cost savings.
IP Telephony facilitates the coordination and aggregation of a number of technologies into a single network of connected devices. Telephone, voice-mail, e-mail, and instant messaging (IM) services are more easily unified into a more congruent communication system using IP Telephony. Whatever the medium that the patient or staff member chooses to deliver or receive their messages; they will be handled in a consistent manner.
Without a doubt the preferred methods of communication have changed for many during the last few years. There was a time when e-mail correspondence between patients and a dental office was uncommon. Today, most dental offices have some ability to communicate via e-mail. This does not indicate any particular Internet sophistication among dentists, but simply highlights the fact that e-mail and IM are no longer ‘fads’ or even ‘trends.’ Both are now a fundamental part of the communication landscape. Demographic differences and message content play major roles in the choice of delivery methods. Young people tend to prefer IM, office workers and professionals prefer e-mail, voice-mail is appropriate for longer or more complex messages, and a telephone or face to face conversation will always be the preferred communication vector for long and emotionally charged messages. Forcing all communication instead into a single medium does not create convenience or efficiency on either side.
The traditional telephone PBX units that are still widely used and continue to be deployed have proven to be highly dependable, simple to configure and use, and enabled with enough features that they are still the best choice for simple telephone systems. As VoIP technologies evolve and become more pervasive, the advantages of a traditional PBX are disappearing.
If your practice pays a hefty monthly long-distance bill, has multiple locations, has administrative staff working off-site routinely, or uses e-mail and voice-mail extensively, then you need a VoIP system now. If your practice doesn’t currently fit that profile, then you will be using VoIP eventually as technology marches on.
There are many advantages to running a TV signal through a network cable, and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) allows, among other things, for content on demand. As the home television evolves from HDTV and on demand delivery, to eventually IPTV, the ubiquitous dental practice TV will evolve along with it. The operatory of the future will be outfitted with a television that allows the patient to watch the programming they want, when they want it, and how they want it. As the home television experience becomes less about watching what is on, and more about watching what we want, the expectations surrounding operatory entertainment will change. Patients of the future will expect to have a personalized entertainment experience, where they choose the experience. If you’re building a new office, I urge you to run network cables to your televisions. Although existing coax networks will be upgradeable to networked IP systems, running a network line now will facilitate the migration to IPTV.
Most small businesses exhibit a security posture and use security processes that were appropriate in the previous century, but are inadequate today. In only a few short years, the security issues affecting businesses have changed radically. Traditional threats, including physical security issues, unauthorized access, staff issues, theft and fraud, have changed somewhat in the post 9/11 world, but still represent the same basic concerns. Increasingly, small businesses must now also protect themselves and their clients against viruses, phishing, spyware, denial of service attacks, privacy concerns, employee issues such as harassment and human rights, and data and identity theft.
Trusted professionals and businesses have long been expected to honor their client’s privacy and ensure their safety and security, but this is becoming increasingly difficult to do. Federal and provincial legislation has also been enacted to ensure that regardless of the difficulty and/or cost, client privacy is maintained. Additionally, employers are increasingly and rightly expected to ensure that the environment that their workers are exposed to is devoid of any safety, harassment, or human rights anomalies. Small businesses in particular have been slow to adapt to the changing threat levels, and dental offices are, in most cases, no exception.
Dental practices are going to be doing a much better job of protecting the rights of their employees and clients in the future. They won’t be doing this because they want to, but because they won’t exist long as a viable business otherwise. Like paying taxes, paying the phone company, or making the lease payments, practices are going to start paying for the security elements required to properly operate a business. Network and data security will become focus items for all dental practices. You’ll see biometric identification, smart cards, VPN solutions, encryption, access auditing, and other equally ‘high-tech’ sounding items deployed in practices to answer security concerns.
Perhaps it also goes without saying, but I’ll say it regardless: Security also involves disaster recovery which includes backup plans. We all know stories, some we’ve even written ourselves, about the users and businesses who wished they would have backed up their data only to find it lost due to human or technology error. More and more businesses are going to ENSURE that their critical business information is backed up and can be recovered on demand. Make sure that your business is one of them.
A dental practice owes its existence to its patients. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is the process of using software tools and business processes to manage the relationship with customers (or in this case: patients). Today’s practice management software provides some rudimentary CRM functionality. This will increase as practic
es realize that they need to do more than sending Christmas Cards once a year. Tomorrow’s practices will understand that they require an intimate understanding of their entire customer profile. In many cases dental practices will use third party CRM applications to overcome the shortcomings of their practice management software. CRM deployment costs have plummeted in recent years, and CRM is now well within reach for dental practices. The difficulty lies only with the willingness of the practice to track their patient contacts in CRM, and as the advantages or CRM become apparent the willingness will increase. Tomorrow’s successful practices will
be the ones that understand that patient retention and growth depends on the management of the patient relationship and with the personalization of that relationship, and not with an expectation of patient loyalty.
Solution Providers / Consultants
The solutions that will become important, and the changes required by dental practices to adapt to the changing world, will require specialized skills. Network requirements, security requirements, and integration requirements all necessitate the involvement of outside and outsourced assistance for all but the simplest computer installations. HR consultants, security consultants, computer solution providers and privacy consultants will become important partners in tomorrow’s successful dental practice. All of the changes itemized above will require outside help to implement, and implementing them correctly will be important for the evolution of tomorrow’s practices. Specialization is a trend that has been with us since the beginnings of commerce, and this trend is unlikely to disappear soon. While YOU take care of your practice, your consultants and solution providers will implement your technology solutions safely.
Tomorrow’s dental industry will become more polarized, with the more successful practices working, acting, and looking radically different from the less successful ones. The more successful the practice, the better they will integrate some key technologies into their routine. It won’t be the most ‘technically gifted’ or ‘computer savvy’ practices that do the best job of the integration, but rather the ones that understand the business of dentistry, and partner with the right specialists. Tomorrow’s appropriate technology adoption will be less about gadgets and ‘wow factor’, and more about security, communication, and patient retention.
Craig Wilson is President of Compudent Systems Inc., an IT company specializing in customized computer installations for dental offices.