Is Your Dental Practice Cloud Ready?
Cloud-based dental software has been on the market for about past decade. However, it has only been within the last two to three years that industry leaders are now offering cloud solutions. Even if you are not experiencing issues with hardware or software, now may be a good time to begin your practice’s migration to the cloud.
What is “the Cloud”?
In simple terms, the cloud is a network of servers across the internet that can store data and run applications. Cloud computing began to explode in the late 1990’s and has since become the standard for many enterprise businesses to run heavy applications that include collaboration across multiple users.
Cloud computing can be completely customized for a business’ needs or can be used to serve specific applications. For example, a business may choose to purchase a cloud server running the operating system of their choice (Linux, Windows Server, etc.), the business’ own applications, and containing space for data.
Alternatively, the business may purchase a specific application from a company that is providing access to software hosted on the internet. This set-up is typically referred to SaaS – Software as a Service. SaaS is usually sold for a monthly fee on a per user or per workstation basis. The SaaS model is what most cloud based dental practice management systems use.
General Advantages of cloud computing over local networks:
- Greater accessibility. With cloud computing, both the application and the data can be accessed anywhere there is an internet connection and computer with a web browser. There may be some limitations to this general rule based on the licensing and security restrictions set by both the business and software provider.
- Collaboration. Collaboration and accessibility are somewhat related. However, accessibility alone doesn’t mean that multiple people are able to work on and edit the same records within a particular database at the same time. Most cloud-based systems are running on databases that use new programming, which enable multiple users to be making changes to documents, images, or other assets, while still maintaining a secure original copy.
- Decrease in hardware purchase and maintenance costs. Since servers outside the business are doing the heavy lifting – running software applications and data storage – businesses no longer have to purchase expensive hardware with high-end specifications required to run processor and memory intensive applications. Most cloud applications also do not require installation of updates. Furthermore, businesses that have converted to the cloud no longer have to worry about how much storage is on their physical hardware. Cloud application will either come with an unlimited amount of data storage or additional storage can be purchased for very reasonable fees.
- Computing power. Cloud computing makes it possible for small and medium businesses to have access to processor power for heavy weight software, like AI applications, genomic sequencing systems, and image recognition.
- Data Security. With recent data breaches at companies like Facebook and Equifax, many question the security of cloud data. However, for small and medium businesses, the security measures that cloud hosts provide are generally much greater than those most businesses can provide, especially small and medium dental practices. Cloud platforms on which most applications are hosted – Google Cloud Platform (GCP), Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure – have far greater resources dedicated to providing a much higher level of security than most businesses can provide.
- Redundancy and Back-up. Cloud applications and data are often stored on a number of servers across the internet. This not only enables the application to be delivered faster to the end user, but also means that should one server stop functioning, other copies of data that can immediately be accessed without any interruption in service.
Cloud Based Dental Options
All of the major players in the dental practice management market now offer cloud-based practice solutions. However, some companies are more established and are in later phases of rolling out their cloud-based solutions.
While they may (or may not) share a similar user interface to their locally stored predecessors, cloud applications are a completely different product, programmed from the ground up. That said, most software designers are cognizant that major changes in workflow can make it more difficult for practices to convert to their cloud counterpart. Hence, many workflows mirror those already executed with traditional systems.
The chief advantages of cloud dental practice management software – in addition to general cloud computing advantages – is that the cloud systems have added features that allow for more comprehensive management, without using additional platforms. For example, cloud systems integrate patient relationship management tools including:
- text messaging
- patient emails
- patient payment options and portals that enable patients to schedule appointments or fill out forms from your website or email
Some providers may also offer these features on their non-cloud products. However, they typically don’t integrate as well and patient responses, such as forms, may be received as a PDF document, versus populating directly into the corresponding database fields.
Many also provide more comprehensive reporting features that present a broader picture of the health of your practice. And, most enable you to customize reports. Cloud solutions may also include marketing features, like automating review collection for online reputation management.
The Cloud Challenge
Imaging solutions have been a weak point in the dental cloud space. However, some software providers now have solutions that enable practices to take and immediately upload images to cloud storage. This solution, though, may come with the extra cost of purchasing new x-ray sensors or imaging hardware if your practice’s current hardware is not compatible.
At the other end of the spectrum, some systems will require you to maintain an in-office database for imaging, which may lessen the appeal of converting to the cloud. And, bridges between practice management and imaging software may not function with cloud-based systems.
Cloud practice management software may also have a difficult time synching with other SaaS providers, like SolutionReach, DemandForce, or Lighthouse. This may be acceptable to practices since many cloud practice management solutions already have the same features as these third-party solutions.
To the Cloud or Not?
There is no question that cloud technology ultimately will provide a better managed practice, and lead to better patient care. Future features such as intelligent scheduling (using AI) to maximize practice productivity, and improved patient follow-up care with tools like automated patient care instructions will further add to the benefits of cloud solutions.
Larger, multi-location practices will likely be the first to benefit from cloud-based solutions. However, smaller practices, ready to upgrade their hardware may also want to strongly consider a cloud-based management system. Many cloud-based practice management systems are still in their early phases. However, because of the significant advantages of cloud computing, becoming an early adapter may prove beneficial.