The Reality of the Paperless Office
The paperless office is a dream for many dentists. At seminars throughout North America, they regularly ask about the viability of going paperless. With the advent of wireless technology and inexpensive tablet computers, there has never been a better time to consider converting to a paperless environment.
The benefits of going paperless include:
• Increased efficiency—Computer technology streamlines operations and improves productivity, allowing team members to focus more on patient care and customer service.
• Reduced costs—Expenses for paper and paper-related items, such as filing systems, are greatly decreased.
• Streamlined communications—New electronic systems allow for quick and secure communication with specialists, physicians, other general practitioners, and patients.
• Improved reputation—Patients are impressed with the look, feel, and efficiency of a modern dental office, one that maximizes the use of advanced technology. Patients are likely to tell their friends and co-workers about such an office, leading to more patient referrals.
Since the 1980s, technology has revolutionized the practice of dentistry—both from a clinical and an administrative standpoint. Innovations such as intraoral cameras, practice management software, and digital radiography have had an enormous impact on the ability of dentists and staff members to deliver outstanding care to patients in a more efficient manner. Technological advances will continue to play a major role in the operation of dental practices as dentists seek solutions for improving productivity, reducing expenses, and creating more value in the eyes of patients.
Deciding to Go Paperless
The following should be considered to help prepare for a smooth transition to a more paperless practice.
1. “Paperless” May Not Mean Totally Paperless. In should come as no surprise that even in the most technologically advanced practices, there will continue to be a need for the minimal use of paper. There will always be patients, vendors, and colleagues who prefer a letter over an e-mail or other electronic communication. For example, if a patient refers a co-worker or friend, a handwritten note from the doctor would be more appropriate than an e-mail. Similarly, many patients prefer paper receipts when they pay their bill. Paperless practices should make every effort to eliminate the unnecessary use of paper, while keeping in mind the needs of their patients.
2. Going Paperless Won’t Happen Overnight. Going paperless is an ongoing process that will occur in stages, usually over many months (and sometimes several years). It is similar to putting in a new software system, but multiplied several times over. Decisions must be made regarding: current technology, technology purchases, compatibility, security, backup, storage, disaster recovery, office space (eg, is there room forcomputers in treatment rooms?), information sharing (eg, practice policies for specialists, physicians, and patients), and cost.
When it comes to a major office transformation, such as transitioning from a paper-based to a paperless office, dentists must realize they will probably encounter delays and detours. Being prepared for such eventualities is the hallmark of good planning and strong leadership.
3. Evaluate All Costs at the Outset and Develop a Budget. Many practices embark on an effort to go paperless only to find it to be more expensive than expected. In addition to direct costs such as equipment and installation, there are unseen indirect costs such as implementation, training, and down time, which can escalate quickly, if not taken into account early.
4. Training the Team is a Critical Aspect of Achieving a Highly Functioning Paperless Office. There is a fairly steep learning curve associated with going paperless. Every team member must receive appropriate training for the practice to receive the full benefits of the technology. Fortunately, most vendors provide training and back-up telephone support to ensure that the practice receives the full benefits of the technology. Depending on the size and scope of the changes, the team may require additional training as well as some follow-up reinforcement.
5. Before Going Paperless, Speak with Colleagues and Visit Their Paperless Offices. This may seem obvious, but many doctors don’t take this step. They rely on second-hand information, which is good up to a point, but cannot replicate the actual experience of visiting the offices of colleagues and speaking to them about the benefits and challenges ahead. Such visits can facilitate a better understanding of what can be acomplished and what will be required to convert to a paperless environment. Interviewing fellow doctors and team members at these offices will provide “on the ground” insights into the successes, problems, expenses, timeframes, and overall expectations when considering a transition to a paperless environment.
6. The Practice Needs a Plan of Action and Well-Documented Systems Before Implementing Paperless Solutions. It is important to organize the practice with high-performance systems prior to switching to an all-digital environment. This will allow the practice to function efficiently and make the transition to a paperless process much more successfully. Practices that are in disarray prior to going paperless will remain in disarray even after implementing a paperless process.
Going paperless has the power to transform practice operations, streamline communications, and improve team productivity, while reducing unnecessary costs. To successfully digitize the practice requires:
• the development of a clear plan
• identification of key technologies
• an understanding of the integration potential of those technologies
• organization of practice systems
• educating the team prior to implementing the paperless process
As with any major investment in the practice, it’s always best to do homework ahead of time. Pre-purchased research is always less costly than post-implementation hindsight.
Visit the Levin Group Resource Center at www.levingroup.com, a free online resource with tips, videos, and other valuable information for running a more profitable, efficient practice. Connect with Levin Group on Facebook and Twitter (@Levin_Group) to learn strategies and share ideas.
About the Author
Roger P. Levin, DDS
Chairman and CEO
Owings Mills, Maryland