When we think about IT, we generally tend to think that everyone is familiar with the latest gadgets and are using them to make their personal and professional lives easier. But the shocking truth is that 26 years after I co-founded Software of Excellence there are still around 17% (The Dental Survey, Manan Limited, 2012) of UK dental practices operating without a recognised management software system and I am constantly amazed that practices are able to function effectively without this kind of business tool.
We can trace the origins of computers in the general dental profession back as far as 1988 when Software of Excellence, was co-founded in New Zealand by three co-directors and myself. It’s fascinating to look back at some of the objectives we set ourselves in those early days and realise that the ‘dream’ hasn’t changed all that much. We aspired then to create a management system that would help dentists run efficient practices, communicate effectively with patients and ultimately operate highly successful businesses, something we continue to strive for today.
It was during the mid 1990s, when the paradigm shift from disk operating system (DOS) to Windows really began to take hold that practice management systems for dental practices started to gain traction in the market. IBM had launched its PC and verticals were being rolled out across a variety of industries and professions, all driven by the networking of PCs.
Originally, dental practice management systems were little more than glorified appointment books and simple clinical charts and although we may have dreamt of our software being used as an analytical tool, the technology to make this a reality simply didn’t exist 20 years ago. Eventually, as technological capacity grew, so too did the profession’s appetite for more sophisticated capabilities and this increased demand was met by a steady supply of innovative ideas from the industry.
I like to think that the changes that took place in dental IT during the period 1995-2000 were due to our insight and innovation, in applying generally available technology to try and solve some of the challenges faced by the profession.
The last decade though is the one that has seen a staggering amount of change, both in general technology and in the use of IT in dentistry. Computers, tablets, broadband and mobile data are now commonplace and the way in which people use technology to communicate with each other has changed beyond all recognition. IT in the dental profession has needed to evolve alongside this to provide dentists with ever more innovative solutions.
The dental market
But other factors have also come into play that have redefined the dental market. The impact of the recession, limits to government funding, the qualification of therapists, patient choices regarding their discretionary spend and the rise of corporates – with their ability to negotiate directly with primary care truts (PCTS) and offer limited private dentistry as ‘loss leaders’, have commoditised dentistry, making it a much harder profession than was the case in the previous decade. Ironically, this has created opportunities for those dentists willing to evolve and embrace IT solutions and these have coincided with more sophisticated patients willing and able to accept a different, and some might say ‘more professional’ approach from their dental practice.
The best practice management systems these days are complete business solutions. By extracting data from the system a principal or business owner can identify all the major factors that will indicate whether the practice is performing to its optimum capacity and then focus effort where it will make a difference. Understanding the importance of e-communication and leveraging modern tools to enable this process, particularly automation and patient self-service, enables practices to offer consistent service that is otherwise not possible and this is one of the great strides forward that we have made in the past five years.
These tools impact on a number of key variables such as chairtime utilisation, treatment blend, provision of hygiene services, and have a direct impact on revenue. But we have also driven other areas of our system to try and help dentists meet patient demand. Online booking is a perfect example of this, with more than 20,000 appointments being placed each month into SoE practices and more than 60% of these booked outside working hours, patients’ appetite for this service is clear. Patients now use online booking in many areas of their lives – it’s fast, convenient and meets people’s demand for immediate response. This service alone has transformed practices, often filling short notice gaps while freeing up reception time to focus on face-to-face customer service. The result is better patient care and happier, more motivated staff, all of which facilitates a stronger business outcome.
This type of communication was simply not possible 10 years ago, let alone 20, and it has been the parallel development of personal communication alongside the willingness of dentists to embrace and apply new technology that has enabled practices to become more profitable and more successful.
When I consider the future of UK dentistry I see a different but bright future for those practices that leverage the tools that are available to enable them to communicate better, attract more patients and keep hold of those patients they have already. Those who fail to recognise the changes and embrace the new possibilities are in danger of being left behind or at the very least, making their lives difficult.
To be innovative within its own industry, dental IT just needs to take its cue from wider society, it needs to keep pace with consumer expectations and create solutions that allow dentists to communicate in a way that meets patient demands. The next decade undoubtedly holds many more advances in terms of computer capability and we will always try and harness this for the benefit of the dental profession.
The Dental Survey, Manan Limited (2012)