Software can be the foundation of an efficient dental practice, or it can become a workflow bottleneck that frustrates staff and patients. Selecting the right platforms and getting the most out of the ones you choose are critical steps to success.
Computers are integrated into every part of a modern dental practice. Software platforms manage almost everything: scheduling, billing, communications, charting, treatment planning, imaging, and more.
By adopting software platforms that integrate smoothly and avoid overlapping functions, practices can develop efficient workflows that drive success and steadily guide operations for everything from clinical procedures to patient communications. Unfortunately, when the opposite happens and a practice uses solutions that do not integrate, workarounds get incorporated into workflows and redundancies creep into processes.
Finding the optimal software mix is critical, but it’s not an easy task. There is a multitude of software platforms designed for dental practices, and many offer a wide array of both native features and add-on modules to expand capabilities.
It can be an intimidating arena to navigate, but with the right mindset and the right partners, any dental practice can find the best software mix to support, streamline, and enhance operations.
Avoiding Common Mistakes
When seeking new dental software, there are a number of pitfalls to avoid. Among the most common is not properly assessing your needs or your options when it comes to potential software vendors and their various platforms. It’s important to know what you have, what you want, and what’s available before doing anything else.
“Before any decisions are made in switching or adding software, dental professionals should conduct a thorough audit of the practice and then ask themselves the question, ‘What opportunities for growth exist?’ ” says Alan Rencher, chief technology officer for Henry Schein One.
This audit can be undertaken by the practice, or via a service such as Henry Schein Practice Analysis, powered by Jarvis Analytics, which analyzes practice data to uncover a deeper understanding of operations, Rencher says. Regardless of who performs the analysis, it should provide a good picture of where a dental practice is today. However, Nina Gilbert, senior global product manager, general dentistry, Sensei at Carestream Dental, notes it’s also important to consider the scalability of the software. A practice does not want to buy something that works today but will not keep working tomorrow. Mike Huffaker, chief revenue officer for Planet DDS, notes that it’s important to be ready for something unanticipated in the future.
“You still want to have the ability to make your own choices as technology changes. As technology advances, you want a software platform that will allow you to take advantage of the best tools at any given time,” he says.
With cybersecurity an important consideration today, Gilbert notes that it’s important to not only know if the software is secure, but also that the company making the software is also constantly working to make sure its platform is safe.
As important as it is to gain a sense of what is needed and to evaluate the technical and security capabilities of potential vendors, it’s just as critical to get the staff on board with potential changes. Plan to dedicate time for training when onboarding a new solution.
“Implementing software is where practices will run into problems if their team members, whether office managers or operations team, haven’t bought into the change of switching software. So you need buy-in whether you’re implementing a new artificial intelligence (AI) solution, patient communications tool, or analytics platform,” Huffaker says.
Training is another key detail that is often overlooked by practices during software transitions. Khamzat Asabaev, founder and CEO of SoftSmile, notes that it’s important to not only factor in the time for training but also the cost associated with dedicating that time to training. When viewed as a cost in both time and money, software training might seem like a good area to find savings, but both Asabaev and Alvin Lin, managing director of Aspire Software’s health and dental division, agree this often proves to be more costly in the long run.
“I’ve observed numerous dental offices resist closing for training and implementation, leading to subpar training experiences and inadequate learning for their teams. This often culminates in a challenging first day with the new system, setting a precedent for ongoing struggles,” Lin says.
The Features That Practices Need
Once a practice is set up for a successful software search and implementation with a needs assessment and an excited staff, it’s time to start looking for an application to meet the practice’s needs. Dental software can do a lot of different things for a practice, but some capabilities truly stand out for the positive effect they have on operations and efficiency.
It’s vital that software be flexible and interoperable so platforms can easily work with each other for different tasks. The growth of cloud-based dental applications has helped increase software interoperability, making it possible for practices to provide an enhanced patient experience.
“The future of dental technology is interoperable, cloud-based, and innovative. Every dental practice has unique needs. In a world where convenience takes priority in our day-to-day lives, having a comprehensive patient experience software is a must,” Rencher notes.
Lin agrees, noting that software delivering appointment reminders, confirmations, patient greetings, and reputation management is now vital for almost every dental practice. Gilbert also says patient engagement is a key function, adding that this really connects to every part of running a practice from the claims processing to clinical documentation and treatment planning.
Although clinical images are important for dental professionals, they are not easy for patients to understand. However, some treatment planning and case presentation platforms feature high-quality 3D visualizations. This makes it easier for clinicians to communicate the value and potential outcomes of treatment proposals.
“Creating detailed and customized treatment tailored to each patient’s needs is important, but even more important is how you communicate treatment to patients—which is greatly enhanced with realistic graphics and visuals. Better graphics make it easier for doctors to handle complex cases and enhance the patient experience,” Asabaev says.
Cloud-based dental software does more than just make it easier to connect with patients. As more practices operate as groups, cloud-based software applications make it easier to cohesively manage multiple locations. Huffaker notes that the cloud isn’t just for practices with more than 1 location. Some practices can simplify complex internal systems by shifting to a cloud-based application.
“Dental practices have built software stacks that are becoming unwieldy and create significant integration challenges, particularly for legacy software solutions. To simplify your practice, [information technology], operations, and even vendor relationships, moving to cloud-based practice management software is the natural direction the industry is headed, and I think we’ll see this trend accelerate,” Huffaker says. “The whole industry is at an inflection point. It’s an exciting time as we think about investing in practice management solutions and moving to the cloud. We’re seeing an acceleration in cloud adoption that is becoming more broadly understood by a wider segment within dental.”
It’s also important that the software doesn’t remain static and unchanging. Dentistry and technology are both developing rapidly, and keeping up with these changes remains important. Lin says practices want to find software companies that are always making their products better and looking for new opportunities.
“For a dental practice to remain competitive, its management software must keep pace. Dentists should choose software vendors that regularly update features based on new tech and user feedback. Such dedication ensures the software stays up-to-date with industry standards,” he adds.
Another key area where software can make a huge difference is automating financial processes, notes Erin Smith, software product marketing director for Patterson Dental. Smith says software solutions can simplify managing a practice’s claims, billing, and collections, while other platforms can help patients find financing to cover dental treatment. Both are important to patients and practices today.
“It is important to have electronic claims and attachments for insurance processing integrated into your practice management software as well as credit card processing that is integrated,” she says. “If your office is, or is considering going out of network, or has retired or uninsured patients, dental payment plan software is something that should be considered as well to attract and retain patients and make it easy for them to pay for their care.”
Modern Bells and Whistles
Although there are numerous software options for managing key practice functions, picking the right add-ons and upgrades is another part of the puzzle. Huffaker says keeping your patients top of mind can help you decide which extra services will make the biggest impact on your practice. Try to see your practice through a patient’s perspective to help uncover the biggest needs.
“As a consumer, they will expect to be able to schedule appointments quickly, fill out forms in advance, communicate via text, etc. Keeping patients happy will help your practice grow,” he says.
Having multiple paths of communication with your patients is important, Gilbert notes. Patients want to interact with their dentist on their own terms and their own time, so allowing them to fill out forms online ahead of appointments and automating appointment confirmations can help a practice reduce no-shows and increase patient satisfaction.
“That way, patients feel more involved with their care and have access to their care team,” Gilbert says, noting that this is “a competitive advantage for your office over those that fail to utilize these tools.”
Although numerous software applications include some marketing capabilities, Lin says talking to your software vendor can help find a firm specializing in marketing and familiar with the technology you are using. This can streamline data sharing and help you past other hurdles to effectively market your practice.
Of course, the biggest potential software upgrades right now all feature AI. Practices can add a range of AI tools to handle everything from data analytics to restoration design to diagnostic decision support. Huffaker says AI image analysis and clinical decision support applications help patients understand and feel confident in treatment proposals. Rencher agrees, noting that AI applications can be seamlessly integrated into existing software applications and workflows.
“Adding a clinical-decision support tool powered by AI not only helps the dentist identify issues with confidence, but it also helps build patient trust,” Rencher says. “This technology will only continue to drive forward, so I would encourage practices to have an open mind and consider adding AI to their practice.”
Integration Is Everything
With so many software capabilities available from different platforms for different areas of the practice, it can be a challenge to keep everything in sync. This is why it’s critical to make sure anything new you bring on board can be integrated with the applications you use. Gilbert notes the importance of having a single patient record that contains every bit of information the practice has on each patient. Having solutions designed to work together by the same software vendor or linked via a validated connection between software vendors increases efficiency and reduces the risk of errors.
“The more integrations the better. You want a totally seamless experience for the dental team,” Rencher adds. “Integrations with imaging systems, patient engagement tools, analytics, and others are critical for efficient and accurate practice operations. These integrations ensure that all data are seamlessly accessible within a unified platform.”
This is especially important as practices capture more digital patient information chairside. Those data are often used for treatment planning, and when systems are integrated with practice management and communications solutions, they make it possible for practices to work more closely and efficiently with specialists and labs.
“Software integration capabilities are very important for creating seamless workflows because using and managing multiple software applications isn’t efficient or convenient,” Asabaev says. “One significant advantage of the integration of treatment planning software to practice management software is that it streamlines workflows in the production and timing of different appliances.”
Lin illustrates how an integrated software solution with clinical treatment planning capabilities can help a practice increase case acceptance by creating a comprehensive, understandable, and customized treatment proposal for the patient. This plan should clarify the issue being addressed; highlight potential repercussions of inaction; and clearly explain available treatment options such as required follow-up visits, treatment stages, and payment breakdowns. A solution that pulls data from every part of a patient’s record can create this type of breakdown for each case, and it can track the progress of every treatment proposal, allowing the practice to follow up when necessary.
“The integration of a proficient clinical and treatment planning module into dental practice operations is paramount for achieving a high case acceptance rate. Relying on antiquated methods, such as handing out printed, complex treatment plans filled with obscure dental procedure codes, can leave patients confused and overwhelmed,” Lin says.
Training and support are the other key features that practices need to consider along with the capabilities of any software. It’s important to know what type of installation and initial training are included with the software, as well as how ongoing support is provided once the solution is operational.
Although training at the time of installation is common, some vendors provide ongoing training with regular webinars or in-product videos and tutorials to make software training an always-on service. When something goes wrong and support is needed, it can help to work with a company that is experienced with the dental industry. Huffaker notes that companies such as Planet DDS have focused on developing applications to solve the challenges of dental practices, and this makes a big difference when it comes to support.
“There’s a lot of value in being a provider that understands dental and the needs of our customers,” he says.
For practices looking to take a more analytical approach to evaluating a software vendor’s support service, Lin recommends asking about average response time, live answering rate, typical callback duration, and the percentage of issues resolved within the same day. A reliable vendor will be transparent about performance metrics, he adds, noting that it’s important to engage with your software vendors and to share feedback both positive and negative.
“Entering a partnership with a software vendor is a long-term commitment, similar to any enduring relationship. The cornerstone of such partnerships is regular, constructive communication and feedback, fostering a mutually beneficial association,” Lin says. “It’s essential to align with a software provider who embodies authenticity, transparency, and a genuine commitment to their clients’ success.”
Digital processes are a part of every dental practice, and when it comes to managing data, dental practices face a choice among numerous software titles and vendors. Different practices will need different software capabilities. But no matter what the application will be doing in the practice, it should deliver the key functions you need, come from a vendor that provides training and support, and integrate with existing workflows and solutions.
“Dentists should take their time to evaluate their specific needs, consider these factors, and collaborate closely with their chosen software provider to ensure a smooth and effective software implementation,” Rencher says.