Embracing new technology

When I returned to Ireland from the UK in 1990, one of the first courses I attended was a day-long course at UCC on the subject of computers in dentistry.

At the time I didn’t even have a home computer and considering it was 17 years ago, you can imagine the difference in both size and the use they offered then. However, the promise they offered was appealing.

It took a further three years before I took the plunge and purchased a computer. Since then I’ve upgraded every few years but never invested in any dental package. I basically run a database of patients and use this to operate a simple recall system, sending reminders twice monthly.

The benefit this has offered me is that I can now regularly purge the database to identify non-attenders. The previous postcard system I inherited with the practice meant that if a patient failed to respond to the card they were essentially lost unless the charts were purged, which was a laborious procedure.

The changes over the intervening years in computer size and capability are staggering. One dentist on that course used his initial computer to kill time between patients by playing chess against it. He has since gone fully paperless and, like many, now runs a computerised practice.

The decision to go paperless can be daunting. There are medico-legal issues to address and there is always the fear of losing all your data. However, we all face this with the possibility of a fire on our premises and computers allow us the safety of a back-up copy of all records if we have the right systems in place.

I personally haven’t taken on a dental package yet for financial reasons rather than any fear of problems. I have a favourite system in mind that I hope to implement over the next nine months when I get all of my office systems 100% organised. I believe you need to have excellent systems operating before you computerise, as the computerisation itself demands routines for inputting information without which you can’t derive the benefits promised.

The benefits include less form-filling time, easier reconciliation of monthly schedules, easier patient and general communication by virtue of storing stock letters, easier preparation of annual accounts, easier wage and stock control, and a host of extras including email communication and internet stock ordering.

There are many dental packages on offer today. It is possible to spend from ?4,000 to ?20,000 buying a package and then you have the annual upgrade and support charges. In view of these it’s probably wise to consult with colleagues who already operate systems. There’s no better way to learn than from another’s mistakes and experience.

The decision to go totally paperless and operate a computerised appointment book has been very controversial and many practices still work both a computer and paper book. Personally I feel it’s best to embrace the change totally and rid the desk of the tattered books we probably all end up with half-way through the year. Digital radiography also offers us the opportunity to rid ourselves of chemicals, tank cleaning and film costs.

I feel the benefits far outweigh the problems of change. Bookstores, toy stores, clothes shops and pizza restaurants have all embraced the new technologies; it’s time for us to catch up.

GPs managed to secure a deal with the Government some years ago to fund the computerisation of their surgeries by cutting prescription costs. Maybe we could secure something similar in a new GMS contract as a payback for the shameful treatment of the past six years, or maybe I’m suffering heatstroke in these hot July days!

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