There are few practices today that are running without the assistance of at least one computer system and dental practice management software. Most dentists have come to appreciate the convenience and additional efficiency of centralized patient data, insurance estimating, claims processing, treatment planning, financial tracking, and a host of other features that are provided with a computer and well-designed software. In a recent article in Dentistry Today (August 2002), I examined the benefits of extending the reach of computers from the front office into the treatment rooms in the back.
NUTS AND BOLTS
Contrary to popular belief, it is relatively easy to add Internet access to operatory computers, depending on the existing software and Internet access currently available. Many offices will have one computer, usually a front office computer, that has a modem installed and is hooked up to one of the phone lines. This is the computer that is usually used for sending electronic claims at the end of the day (so as not to tie up the phone line during business hours). If the office is using a dial-up line to connect, I do recommend that they consider adding a phone line to be used exclusively for data access. While some Internet service providers will disconnect a connection if it is idle for a period of time, it only takes a few seconds to reconnect, and there are many inexpensive programs out there that can “trick” the Internet provider into thinking that you are online and surfing the Web, even when you are not.
I find discussion groups to be one of the best aspects of the Internet. Few people realize that long before the World Wide Web broke onto the scene, discussion groups, or Usenet, were the main form of online communication. To see a list of groups in Internet Explorer, click on the Mail icon, then click on Read News. If you’ve never done this before, you’ll need to download the entire list from your Internet provider. Most providers have a list of over 35,000 groups! The best-known group for dentistry is sci.med.dentistry. You can post a question here and get replies from other users. However, many dentists do not frequent these groups. If you’re looking to see if anyone has asked a similar question before, go to a Usenet search engine. The best one is Google Groups at www.groups.google.com/. Enter the key words or terms, and it will search for any instance of these words that have been posted in the past 6 to 7 years. There are, however, better discussion groups out there. The message boards at Dental Town (www.dentaltown.com) are quite busy with over 11,000 registered members. I also find the message boards at Gener8tnext (www.gener8tnext.com) to be a great source of information and dialogue.
There are many different sources for finding great deals on dental supplies. Some of my favorites are Net32 (www.net32.com), DentalXchange (www.dentalxchange.com), and Dentistry.com (www.dentistry.com). In most cases, they can offer better prices than traditional suppliers and can allow you to easily track current and previous orders to assist you in placing new orders. Of course, many dentists enjoy the service they receive from their current suppliers, and have no desire to change suppliers. These suppliers are starting to jump on the online bandwagon as well. Patterson (www.pattersondental.com) has an excellent site that will permit you to set up shopping lists, have barcode ordering, and allow you to schedule future orders as well. Henry Schein (http://www.henryschein.com/dental/) and Benco (www.benco.com) also have well-designed sites that make ordering easy. I do feel that ordering directly from the operatory makes a lot of sense. The assistant (or the doctor) often is most aware when a particular supply is running low, and rather than trying to keep a list, it is very easy to simply log on to the website and place your order. If you have the luxury of a persistent broadband Internet connection, you can keep an up-to-the-minute inventory log running and set up parameters where supplies are automatically ordered.
While e-mail is the number one application on the Internet, it is not ideal for exchanging patient data. E-mail is not secure, and it is vulnerable to viruses and worms. Also, many Internet providers limit the size of e-mail attachments you can receive, and digital photos and images can be quite large. One of the most exciting uses of the Internet for dental applications is online collaboration. Here’s how it works. An account is set up with a website that specializes in storing digital images and notes. The two best sites for this are Transcend Online (www.transcendonline.com) and Digitalightbox (www.digitalightbox.com). Transcend’s service is called TransNet. It allows for a virtual consultation, where a dentist can send patient notes and any digital images (such as intraoral photos or x-rays) to any number of colleagues, such as specialists. These images and notes are saved on a secure server, accessible only to the dentists or labs that you designate. Once you send the info, the recipient is notified and can access the images and notes. What’s nice about this system is that the recipient can add his own notes and comments, and the original sender can view these comments at any time. This truly allows for rapid and easy communication between general dentists and specialists, and can be modified to work with dental labs as well.
There are many reasons why dental practices should consider adding computers to the treatment rooms. While many experts have commented on the value of these systems as they relate to scheduling and practice decentralization, there are also numerous other advantages to operatory computers. With Internet access, the dentist and his staff have an excellent and limitless resource for obtaining information, tracking inventory, online collaboration with other practitioners and patients, and the ability to run the entire practice from the Web. As the Web and Internet access become more secure, and as broadband becomes more prevalent, I see a time when Internet access in the operatory will become just as important as the front-office computer.