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Is dentistry ready for ‘the cloud’?

admin on September 14, 2011

Is dentistry ready for ‘the cloud’?

By Dan Tynan

August 8, 2011 — Cloud computing may not be taking dentistry by storm just yet, but it is steadily making its way into the world of practice management software and systems. And there are many reasons dental practices should consider investing in it.

“It was a no-brainer that we weren’t going to purchase software,” said Karah Maloley, who serves as business director for Vail Valley Dental Care. “We didn’t even price it. If we were going digital, we thought we might as well go all the way.”

So instead of investing thousands of dollars on a dedicated software package, they spend less than $200 a month for Denticon, a Web-based practice management service offered by Planet DDS. Unlike traditional software, Denticon isn’t installed on a hard drive inside Dr. Maloley’s front office PC. It lives in “the cloud,” on Web servers in data centers located across the Internet.

When the Maloleys need to access patient records or schedules, they can log in from virtually any device connected to the Net, whether it’s a computer, a smartphone, or a tablet PC. Having their data in the cloud allows the Maloleys to use Planet DDS’s Virtual Business Service (VBS), which provides a team of assistants a thousand miles away to handle calls and schedule appointments. In fact, it allowed Karah to work from home after the birth of their first child.

Better access, lower costs

Cloud computing is not merely transforming dentistry, it’s also changing how the entire world does business. If you’ve ever downloaded an email from Hotmail, made a Skype phone call, bought something from Amazon, or checked your bank balance online, you’ve used cloud computing.

Simply put, the cloud consists of tens of thousands of computers in data centers around the world. Because most of the data processing and storage takes place inside these data centers, you can use smaller and less powerful devices to do the same things that used to require a beefy office PC. All you need is a fast Internet connection.

“The key benefit is that it reduces your IT costs.”— Marty Jablow, DMD

For example, when Dr. Maloley gets an emergency call from a patient, he can look up the patient’s records using an app on his iPhone, no matter where he happens to be.

“I want to be accessible to my patients whether they have a dental emergency or just a concern,” he said. “This iPhone app lets me have all the patient information immediately when I’m not in the office or at home. I don’t have to wait until Monday to find a resolution to their problem.”

Cloud computing also offers a dramatic reduction in computing costs. Because cloud-based services can be shared by hundreds or thousands of users at a time, service providers can charge much less per user and still make huge profits. This gives small companies access to the kind of computing power once reserved for big multinationals.

That’s why when Adrian Huang, DDS, moved his practice from Arizona to Utah, he went with Curve Dental, another cloud-based practice management service. The cost savings for a small start-up were simply too hard to turn down, Dr. Huang said.

“We wanted to be able to access the system from our computers anywhere, anytime,” he said. “Using Curve meant we could start booking patients while our office was still being built and set up all our insurance fee schedules before we even moved in. It’s a huge advantage for a start-up to not be forced to open and burn through capital while waiting for construction to be completed.”

While Curve’s cloud-based dental management service costs slightly less per month than standalone software Dr. Huang has used in the past, he said it saves money in other ways because his office needs less powerful computers.

“We’re not really buying the software, we’re just buying access to it,” he said. “And because all of our data is already online, we don’t need to worry about backing it up as much. As a start-up, it felt like we spent less.”

In fact, Dr. Huang runs his Ninth East Dental practice almost entirely in the cloud. He uses Gmail for email communications, Google Docs office suite for writing letters and crunching numbers, and QuickBooks Online for accounting. The only thing he really needs an office PC for is storing before-and-after photos for his cosmetic patients, he said — and even that may soon change.

“We still have patients’ photos on our hard drives,” he said. “But we’re testing a new service from Curve that lets us upload those as well.”

Software vendors follow suit

Even patient information systems are moving to the cloud. Patterson Dental Supply recently introduced Caesy Cloud, an Internet-based version of its well-know patient education system. Instead of installing and maintaining a dedicated server in each office, dental pros can subscribe to the service and let patients to watch streaming videos about treatments and procedures on an office PC, laptop, smart phone or even a tablet such as the Apple iPad.

Marty Jablow, DMD, a general practitioner at Green Street Dental in Woodbridge, NJ, and author of the DrBicuspid.comcolumn Ask Marty, has been beta testing the Caesy Cloud system for a couple of months. Using the cloud is a more efficient and less costly way of educating patients, he pointed out.

“Dentists don’t have to pay for a server,” he said. “There’s no setup other than logging in. You don’t have to update the service periodically because Patterson will do that automatically. But the key benefit is that it reduces your IT costs.”

Of course, moving to the cloud entails some risk. If your Internet connection goes down or your service provider has an outage, you could be unable to process patients. And you must rely on a third party to keep your patient data private and secure.

But Karah Maloley says having the practice’s data in the cloud actually makes them feel safer.

“I feel the risks are lessened because our data is stored in the cloud instead of on a computer that can crash,” she said. “And if our Internet connection goes down, our extended staff at VBS, who work in a variety of locations, will still be able to access our office information and schedules. There are always concerns about hacking and privacy, but with Planet DDS I feel like I’ve outsourced these concerns to professionals.”