Why Dentists Need Computers
We need computers because our paper-based systems simply cannot provide adequate information to support the information needs of a large modern dental practice, let alone support shared information with the rest of the health community.
However, computers are simply a means to an end to deliver the information system we need. On their own, they cannot solve our problems. If you don’t know how to get from New York to Boston, then having a fast car is as likely to take you away from Boston as towards it.
Worse, if you set off in the wrong direction, the faster the car, the further away it will take you in a given period of time. Computers are fast cars compared with paper-based systems which are more like push bikes, but you can still head off hurtling towards the Mexicn border, if you don’t know where you’re going.
We need to understand better what computers can and cannot do, so that we can use them appropriately and effectively to achieve the goals of better dental care and practice management.
Let’s first consider what computers are good at. Here are ten things computers are good at:
- Storing information
Doing what they are told
Talking to other computers
Passing on information to other computers quickly
Adding up and doing other sums
Producing pretty graphs from numbers
Sitting there and not getting impatient whilst waiting for the next instruction
But equally, there are things that computers are bad at. Ten of these are listed below.
Being intelligent, computers are stupid
Computers do what you say, not what you want
Communicating with people
Applying contextual information
Working with fuzzy data, eg diagnoses
Remembering when power is switched off
Working the way people work
Telling when people are lying
Using common sense, they don’t have any!
The best way to think about this is to consider the computer as a member of your team, with particular strengths and weaknesses. As in any team situation good practice requires that you play to the computer’s strengths and compensate for its weaknesses. Very often, problems are caused by people’s false expectations of their computer systems.
You always knew about the computer’s limitations, didn’t you? They can’t help it, it’s just the way they are made. Think of them as a member of your team. In any team situation, you analyse each member’s strengths and weaknesses and utilise their strengths and avoid exacerbating their weaknesses. Treat the computer as a member of the team. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your computer and play to its strengths.
Computers treat information very literally. To you, if the patient complains of toothache, you would likely look in the patients mouth. A computer wouldn’t know where to look. Everything that you want the computer to know it has to be told.
For example, if you told the computer any of the following things, it wouldn’t even see a problem.
- the patient is –70 years old
the patient is 700 years old
the patient is older than his parents
the patient was born tomorrow
the patient is male and female
The computer will only query these statements if given a specific instruction so to do. Computers work best when information is precise and unambiguous. The problem is, that in healthcare, information rarely is.
Why Bother? What’s in it for You as a Dentist?
By now you may be wondering “Why bother? What’s in it for you as a dentist?” Here’s why the American Dental Association thinks you should:
· Dental office computer systems should be compatible with those of the hospitals and plans they conduct business with. Referral inquiries should be handled quickly and easily.
· Vendors should be able to supply low-cost software solutions to physicians/dentists who support standards-based EDI. Costs associated with mailing, faxing, and telephoning may decrease.
· Administrative tasks can be accomplished electronically. Dentists may have more time to devote to direct care of their patients.
· Dentists should have a more complete data set of the patient they are treating, enabling better care. More efficient systems may give dentists more time to spend with patients and performing any clinical work
And here’s what they think is in it for the patients:
· Patients seeking information on enrolment status or health care benefits may be given more accurate, complete and easier-to-understand information.
· Cost savings to providers and plans may translate into less costly health care for consumers. Premiums and charges may be lowered.
· Patients may save postage and telephone costs incurred in claims follow-up.
· Patients should have the ability to see what is contained in their medical records. The infrastructure should be in place for patients to see who has accessed their medical records. Patient records should be adequately protected through organizational policies and technical security controls.
· Visits to dentists and other health care providers may be shorter without the burden of filling out paper forms.
· Consumer correspondence with insurers about problems with claims may be reduced.
Gillies AC (2007) IT and information for dentists: a handbook, Lulu Press, London
This post is part of the series: Dental informatics
This series designed to help dentists make better use of information and information technology