Embracing Technology to Streamline Your Practice

By Dr. Charles Blair

In the past, dentists could be very successful, even if their practices were inefficient and ignored the benefits of marketing and technology. Not today! With the increase of PPO plan dominance and competition from corporate-owned practices, the cottage industry practice must operate as a business or simply fail, in the longer-term. There are capital costs associated with essential dental technology that must be addressed. The overall business plan for today’s practice must be revenue savvy, not just cost-based. Dentists must stop stepping over dollars to save pennies in an environment where reimbursement is on the decrease.

Dentists must stop stepping over dollars to save pennies in an environment where reimbursement is on the decrease.

Total compensation for labor in the typical dental practice is roughly 30% of collections. Thus, the average practice grossing $700,000 in collections invests $210,000 in labor costs. Staff must be given the tools and training to be more efficient and effective in light of today’s challenges. With proper training, the utilization of technologies, electronic services, and other tools can increase practice production and streamline workflow by 10%-30% - a huge ROI.

In an earlier, simpler era, the dentist purchased basic equipment: chairs, lights, cabinetry, air compressors, and suction. Today, the technology portion of a practice’s capital investment can cost as much as basic equipment purchases.

Dental technologies were developed in serial fashion. For instance, intraoral cameras were analog, standalone, and did not integrate with the practice management software. Early generation digital X-ray sensors required a “bridge” and could be hindered by the lack compatibility, in spite of sales assurances. Over time, analog shifted to digital, and now digital technology is king.

There are even more sophisticated technologies, such as CAD/CAM and Cone Beam CT, which must integrate not only with the practice management software but also with each other. In addition, they must be compatible with outside dental laboratories. These are the most costly technologies in the dental office. Integration is such a vital consideration in the purchase and implementation of technology because when it’s done correctly, it not only delivers superior patient care, but it also automates the practice, which boosts the team’s efficiency, effectiveness, morale and ultimately, the bottom line.

Here's a list of some of the technologies required in today’s environment:

  1. Practice Management Software—This critical selection is the “foundation.” All the other technologies must connect to it in some degree. Not only should technologies be able to communicate, but that communication must be seamless and the exchange of information should occur with the least amount of intervention by a staff member. If a staff member has to jump through a number of hoops in order to perform a task, a better solution can be found elsewhere. Training of the team must ensure that the capability of every module is maximized and used to its greatest capability.
  2. Electronic Services—Patient eligibility, integrated credit card processing, electronic claims, patient contact, and patient education software are essential, not optional.
  3. Digital Impressions—The price point for digital impressions has dropped below $12,000, which promotes more widespread adoption. This is an ideal price point and allows dentists to “get their feet wet” without the higher cost of a complete CAD/CAM system. With some brands, the digital scanner can be connected with an in-office milling machine for a complete CAD/CAM system.
  4. CAD/CAM—With a volume of 15-20 units a month, this higher-cost technology has an excellent ROI—particularly when offering high-profit same-day dentistry and conversion of multi-surface operative restorations to conservative onlays. As previously mentioned, a digital scanner could be the first component purchased and later upgraded to a full-blown CAD/CAM system.
  5. Cone Beam CT—3D Cone Beam technology opens up new arenas for implants, endodontics, oral surgery, and orthodontic treatment. This more expensive technology has an excellent ROI if paired with the right procedure mix and volume, or if used by a multi-provider practice.
  6. Digital Pans—The price point of digital pans is below $35,000 and is affordable for the solo practice. A time-saving eight seconds is required for exposure. In addition, many also offer a bitewing image view. Some offer an upgrade path to Cone Beam CT images, protecting the initial investment.
  7. Digital Sensors/Phosphor Plate Systems—Digital X-rays are a basic technology which eliminate dip tanks while offering increased case acceptance and patient education.
  8. Intraoral Cameras—Intraoral cameras are essential for patient education, malpractice prevention, recordkeeping, and insurance documentation.
  9. Caries Detectors—Caries detectors provide early detection of decay and now some have the capability of a quick “snapshot” view, increasing efficiency.
  10. Oral Cancer Screening Devices –
    Advanced screening technology identifies biochemical and morphological changes in cells of the mouth, throat, tongue and tonsils. It aids in early detection of cancerous and precancerous lesions and supports an office’s overall dedication to the Total Health of the patient.

Today, the technology portion of a practice’s capital investment can cost as much as basic equipment purchases.

The dentist must also examine issues such as network capabilities, integration, support, and optimization of the technology’s potential. Some technologies only “talk” with other technologies of the same manufacturer—a closed system (think Apple!). Major dealers have gravitated to a specific suite of technologies which do integrate and are always compatible. Often there are exclusive distribution channels. So, the dentist must examine “best of class” and should buy into a “suite” of technologies known to be compatible.

Look at the workflow of the office and various touch points along the way. As you consider the above-listed technologies, give consideration to these critical factors in the evaluation of specific brands and products:

  1. Compatibility—Will the components work seamlessly with both the practice management system and with each other without bridges?
  2. Integration—Do the various technologies work together where required?
  3. Optimization potential—Will workflow be increased for greater overall ROI?
  4. Support—Will there be adequate service and support long-term, after the sale?

Be very careful that your choice of software and hardware communicate and cause minimal disruption to existing systems.

Yes, things are challenging, but there is also promise for our cottage industry. How will traditional practices remain healthy and grow into the 21st century and swim with the sharks? The answer is that growing, thriving practices must make the necessary investment back into the practice.