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Mixing Paper and Digital – Is this Good or Bad?

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Computers and software have made their way into the doctor’s office. Today you’ll be hard-pressed to find a dental practice that does not use computers in some manner. Federal incentive programs and the need for tools to handle increased documentation needs have pushed the adoption of health information systems. Nonetheless it is true that the pace of adoption has not been as high as expected.

Dental clinics go through various stages when adopting EDR technology. There is excitement and curiosity in the initial stage where employees are willing to give the new technology a chance. Inevitably there are problems in implementation which lead to frustration. The push to change loses momentum and no one is interested in troubleshooting. The staff wants to go back to the old system that everyone was familiar with.

And so practices end up with a weird mix of paper and digital in their daily workflows. Some tasks like billing, claim processing etc. are handled exclusively through digital means. But other processes like clinical notes, diagnosis and images are handled with paper. In an ideal situation, every dental practice should have digitized all their paper documents including historical records. In reality clinics tend to leave older files on paper and store new data in digital format.

But the vast majority of dental practices continue to use both. Why does this happen? Is it good or bad for dentists to use paper alongside EDRs?

The Disconnect between Paper Charts and Digital Records

The biggest reason why dentists continue to use paper along with digital tools is the disconnect between traditional paper charts and electronic records. Many practice management and EHR systems appear to be geared towards accounting needs. This means that they are more suitable for certain processes like managing accounts, streamlining the billing process and speeding up claim payments. These systems may not be geared towards patient centric treatment and lack the flexibility of paper notes.

All of this means that dental staff are more likely to use the digital tools for certain aspects while continuing with paper for others. This divide is further exacerbated by the fact that there are no easy data entry and editing tools for clinical notes. Dentists and other professionals have to laboriously type them out. Even a small addition or change can take several minutes. So many dentists avoid the EHR altogether when they can simply jot down a few notes on paper in their own handwriting.

One solution to this problem that many vendors use is templates and predefined fields. However this opens up a whole host of other issues. Using templates can lead to inaccuracies and gaps in clinical notes that can harm the dentist when it comes to malpractice suits and other legal issues. On the flipside there is needless duplication of data which takes up valuable time and resources to record in the first place.

Fortunately it appears that software vendors are aware of these issues and have plans to change the situation. Quite a few service providers have initiated changes to their platforms that help dentists with data entry and capturing crucial clinical information. Autocomplete, autocorrect and voice dictation are a few tools that have great potential to remedy the situation.

Dental professionals need the ability to capture detailed clinical notes in digital format. Software should enhance the strengths of paper notes while compensating for the inherent drawbacks. Bridging this gap might take some time but each step in the right direction forms the foundation for the next. There is no doubt that future dental professionals will look back and wonder how we ever managed without technology!