Oral Health Group

Training: The KEY to effectively using technology

December 1, 2005
by Craig Wilson

Most will agree that a computer is a very powerful tool in a dental practice, or in any other business. Other related technology tools, such as digital imaging technologies, are equally powerful and becoming equally pervasive in dental practices. However, as with all power tools, the unsupervised use of such tools by the untrained can be dangerous. At best, the user will lack the knowledge to make effective use of the tools, and at worse they will cause harm to themselves or the practice.

If staff members do not have the necessary skills to do the job, they need help to get those skills. Additionally, the situation is complicated by the fact that people ‘don’t know what they don’t know’. In most cases, individuals and dental practices will try to do things in the best and most efficient way possible. If they don’t have knowledge of the tools and techniques available, they will not be able to make efficient choices.


If new staff are being hired, they need to be screened for the proper attitude and skills. If they don’t have both, they are not good candidates for employment. If existing staff are being evaluated, and it is determined that certain skills are lacking, it’s in the employers best interest to help the staff upgrade their skills.

Good quality training focused on the right areas is always a good way to spend time and money. Resources allocated here are more likely to return positive dividends than those used almost anywhere else. But where should a practice start when trying to build technology skills through training?

General computer knowledge

There was once a time that it was acceptable for a person to claim that they didn’t know how to use a computer. It was also once acceptable to be unable to type, or to lack the skills required to use a mouse. Once upon a time, people were not expected to be able to dial a phone number, take a photograph, pump gas, or operate an elevator, and these tasks were therefore best left to the professionals who were skilled in the use of such technologies.

Today, it is extremely rare to find a vocation that does not require basic computer skills. In the unlikely situation that a computer is not involved in the actual performance of a job, it is likely required when filing paperwork, submitting time sheets, ordering or reporting online, or keeping up to date through email or the web.

The ability to type is now as important as the ability to speak. Communication through email is the preferred method for many. Being ‘computer-illiterate’ is no-longer an acceptable excuse for lack of performance.

So, what skills are required? Basic keyboard skills are obviously necessary. Staff should either take a keyboarding course, or work with some kind of ‘TypingTutor’ software that will assist with the development of good keyboarding habits.

A basic understanding of the use of the ‘operating system’ (MS Windows in most dental practices) is also required. Staff should understand how to startup and shutdown a computer, how to save and retrieve files, and also how to delete and rename them. Basic computer concepts, such as how files are organized in directories should be understood, as well as the importance of backup and virus protection.

Staff that don’t understand basic computer concepts need to be educated. Many courses are available, and computer vendors can sometimes provide training. There is no substitute for experience however. If staff don’t have computers and Internet access at home, they should be encouraged to get it. Dental offices that are computerized will be turning over their computer equipment every three to five years. At that time, although the computers will be too old and slow for use in the dental office, they may be suitable for use at home for simple email and web browsing. Give the computers to the staff. Alternatively, refurbished computers can be purchased for minimal cost, and are generally very reliable.

Microsoft Office or OpenOffice

There are a few software applications that are required by every business and in some cases by every computer user. These include: a word processor to generate letters, a spreadsheet application to create reports and graphs, and to perform simple or complex calculations, a presentation application, and possibly a database application. The two most common software suites that contain these various applications are the Microsoft Office suite, and the OpenOffice suite. If you’re not familiar with it, OpenOffice is an open source (meaning that the software code is freely available and can be distributed and modified without violating any copyright) alternative to the MS Office product. In many ways it is similar to MS Office, but without the cost, and without some of the pretty Microsoft icons and graphics. Some people (especially the more computer literate among us) prefer the OpenOffice product and find it to be superior for a variety of reasons. Most people who are comfortable with MS Office will find that within a short period of time they are able to use OpenOffice as effectively as MS Office. In some cases, special scripts and macros that are included with Practice Management Software, or Imaging Software applications will work only with MS Office (normally with MS Word), and you will therefore be required to purchase the MS Office package. If you are not limited in any way by your other applications, take a look at OpenOffice. You’ll be surprised by the functionality and sophistication available in a free software product.

Regardless of the choice of ‘Office’ suite applications used in the practice, it is important that staff have the ability to use the applications that are appropriate to their jobs. As staff improve their skills and understand the functionality of the various ‘Office’ applications, it becomes much easier for them to apply those tools to the needs of the practice. Letters, reports, case presentations, marketing pieces, and patient education materials all become easy to produce when the right skills and tools are available. Class sessions, online training, books, self-study, and tutorials are all available to help staff improve their ‘Office’ skills.

Practice management software

The amount and quality of training available and required for the effective use of practice management software varies greatly between providers. Some provide extensive and ongoing training with their product, usually for a fee, and some provide almost none. In some cases, practice management software must be purchased with a training package, often costing several thousand dollars and requiring staff to spend several days in intensive training. Vendors have discovered that without proper training, users of the software will run into problems, sometimes requiring extensive support, and will be generally unhappy with their software purchase. They’ve learned from experience that most offices require significant amounts of training.

If training is available from the software vendor, it is generally a good idea to take advantage of this offering. Additionally, make sure that you are taking advantage of any ongoing training offerings, more advanced training, and also investing in training for new staff members. If good training is not available from the vendor of the software, there will sometimes be third party trainers and consultants available who can assist. Failing that, experienced staff from other practices that are using the software successfully might be recruited for training.

Imaging software

As with practice management software, dental imaging software and hardware is provided with varying amounts of training. Since many imaging packages are relatively simple to get started with, they often come with extremely limited training. However, the potential value inherent in the use of digital imaging and imaging software can be realized only through the development of the skills necessary to use the software and associated technologies effectively. Using
images to communicate with patients, manipulating digital images for diagnostic purposes or for case presentations, the effective storage and retrieval of images, and the efficient use of images throughout the practice are all learned skills.

Some practices are extremely effective in their use of digital imaging, and find that their systems are an invaluable part of the treatment process and the patient experience. Others simply don’t have the knowledge and skill necessary to make effective use of their equipment, and are no better off than the office with no digital imaging capabilities.

Some of the early adopters of digital radiography learned to use digital images through trial and error, and close contact with the manufacturers of the equipment. In many cases, these early adopters were extremely interested in the developing technologies, and wanted to push its limitations and discover its potential.

In some cases, these offices are now on their 2nd or 3rd type or brand of digital radiography equipment. As their imaging equipment has changed, their knowledge has grown and the digital imaging skills in the practice have increased.

Today’s adopters of dental digital imaging technology can learn from earlier adopters, and can shorten the learning curve significantly. This is accomplished through advanced software training from vendors or consultants, or through interaction with practices that have already implemented systems that are working effectively for them.

General dental imaging

Whether a practice uses digital or analog systems to produce images, it is likely that training can improve the imaging process in the practice. Some practices are highly skilled in the use of radiographic techniques, and the quality of their radiographs is excellent not because of the specifics of their equipment but because of their skills. Other practices have the best equipment available, but produce extremely poor quality radiographs, or simply can’t find them when they need them. Likewise, the use of cameras, either intra-oral, digital, or film-based, varies dramatically between practices. Some excellent courses are available on dental photography and the use of photographs in dentistry. Hiring a radiography consultant to base-line the office, to diagnose imaging problems, and to provide training is an excellent way to improve radiographic image quality. Often, there are some very basic things that can be changed which dramatically improve the quality of the images.

It is most important that a dental practice recognize that it is always in a state of ongoing skill development, and that staff are required to upgrade their skills routinely. Training is not something that is performed once and then checked off the list.

The speed with which skills are developed depends on a variety of factors, but good quality training programs focused on the areas deemed most relevant are extremely important. There are very few things that can be done that nearly guarantee a positive return on investment, improved patient satisfaction, improved staff morale, and/or a more smoothly running practice. Ongoing training, especially on technology and imaging, is one of those things, and should be serious undertaken in all dental practices.

Craig Wilson is the CEO of Compudent Systems Inc., an IT company specializing in customized computer installations for dental offices.

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