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Compendium December 2010 (Vol 32, No 12)

In Practice — Six Steps to Selecting the Right Practice Management Software for Your Practice

by Robert (Bob) Bullock, CMS

    Throughout my 37-year career of working with software for managing healthcare facilities, I have been asked to assist with selecting the right software for individual facilities. For the past 18 years, I have worked with software for veterinary practices, from one-doctor practices to practices with more than 30 veterinarians on staff. In addition, I have worked with several universities in the United States and Australia. Regardless of the facility’s size or type, the question remains the same: “What practice management software is best for me?”

    I read many articles about this subject, but to date, I have found none that really discuss the steps of making the decision. Most concentrate on reviewing what various software solutions can do. In this article, I focus on the steps to help you make the right decision for you.

    Whether you need practice management software because you have a new practice or because your old software is not meeting the needs of your existing practice, there are many software solutions on the market (more than 20 at last count) to choose from. Some are very low priced, concentrating on the basics to run your accounts receivables, while others are more expensive and can provide a complete array of modules for managing your accounts receivables, appointment and boarding schedules, medical records, downloading data from electronic equipment, and more.

    In my experience, the following steps can help you select the right software for your practice.

    Step 1. Understand Your Budget

    To begin, you must know what you want, need, and have budgeted for. Many times, budgets are based on guesses, not reality, so you need to be prepared with a budget range rather than a fixed dollar amount. Your budget must include software, installation, and training as a package.

    I do not recommend including hardware in your software budget. This may sound strange, but if you think about it, all software requires hardware, and most software requires the same type and size of hardware to run efficiently. When you pick your software provider, you may want to get its specs and quote for hardware. Take these to a hardware and networking specialist for comparison. The best software will only run as well as the system it is running on.

    Step 2. Analyze Your Practice

    This is the toughest step in selecting the best software for your practice. You must get your entire staff involved, including receptionists, technicians, doctors, and, especially, your practice manager. Take the time to look at how your practice is working from the client/patient standpoint by following different clients and patients through your practice, from making the appointment to checking out and paying for service. Analyze different services, from routine examinations and vaccinations to hospitalization. Is the flow efficient for your staff and the client? Where are the bottlenecks? Can they be solved by software, or does the service need to be more efficient? A consultant who specializes in practice management software selection, evaluation, implementation, and usage may be able to assist at this stage.

    Step 3. Identify Your Software Needs

    Once you have determined that new software is the solution to your issues, review your wants with your staff in all areas of your practice. What do you want the software to do for you? One major consideration is whether you want your practice to become paperless. If so, you will need software that can run efficiently in a paperless environment. You will also need to understand the terminology of a paperless environment. If being paperless is not a goal of your practice, it may be a waste of time and money to consider software that promotes a paperless environment.

    Step 4. Think About Your Data

    Consider all the data your practice generates. What needs to be stored electronically? Digital photos, in-clinic or reference lab results, and radiographs are just a few examples of data that should be stored electronically in medical records. Don’t forget to consider the ability to connect to outside companies for services you already use or are considering subscribing to, such as electronic reminder services or GlobalVetLink. Make sure that any software you consider will be compatible with processes you depend on or want for the future. This step will eliminate a number of vendors.

    Step 5. Identify Your Top Candidates

    Finally, you’re ready to start contacting software vendors with the information you’ve gathered in steps 1 through 4. Give your practice manager the responsibility of taking the first look at six vendors to whom you want to send your requirements. But how do you go about picking those six? Do you search the Internet for software companies? Do you ask colleagues for recommendations? Do you consider using a consultant? The right answer for your practice depends on one big question: Do you or your practice manager have the time and technical knowhow to evaluate what is available? In my experience, most veterinarians do not have the time needed to do an adequate search by themselves because the process takes valuable time away from patient care, thereby reducing revenue. Likewise, your practice manager may not have the time to devote to the initial search. If in-house resources are better used for day-to-day practice, consider getting assistance from a consultant.

    Step 6. Evaluate Your Choices

    Once you have narrowed the field to at least six companies and sent them your requirements, what next? Here comes the time-consuming but critical process that, if ignored, can cost you thousands of dollars and hours if you pick the wrong software.

    First, review the six vendors’ responses to the requirement list you sent them, and eliminate the bottom three. Once you have your top three software vendors, see which one meets the following criteria:

    • The company is financially stable and has been in the practice management software business for years. Software should be a key component of its business (i.e., not just an offshoot to get you to purchase other products or services). Some distributors have purchased software companies to automate the ordering of their products. If you are going to consider one of these companies, you must ask how many updates have been made since the software was purchased and if these enhancements improve the medical aspect of your practice. Companies that offer software along with services such as diagnostic testing may be candidates if you use their equipment or services; however, be careful of “free” software offers. Many of these companies will ask for a long-term contract for their other products or services.
    • The company is prepared to guarantee its responses to your requirement list in a contract. Some companies will not do this.
    • The company is willing to conduct an onsite demonstration of its software. During the onsite demonstration, evaluate the representative giving the presentation as much as you evaluate the software:
      — Does he or she ask for time to meet with your staff and walk through your practice before presenting the software?
      — Does he or she answer your questions with words rather than demonstrating the answer using the software?
    • If the answers to the above questions are “yes,” the representative either has little knowledge of how practices function and/or is more interested in selling you the software and moving on to the next sale. You want a representative you will feel comfortable working with during and after the sale.
    • If a company is not willing to come onsite, find out how it is going to demonstrate its software and relate to meeting your needs.
    • The company can convert your data from your current practice management software and show you how the same data will look in the new software. Ask to have your data preconverted before the contract is signed. Also, ask for references—other clients who have converted from your software—and call them to discuss how the conversion went.
    • The company provides adequate training. Will the representative discuss your staff’s level of software knowledge and develop a training program to meet your needs? Will he or she use a standard training program regardless of your type of practice? This is especially important if the standard program is for a general companion animal practice and your practice provides specialty, referral, emergency, mixed animal, equine, or 24-hour services. Do not skimp on training, which will determine how quickly and successfully you and your staff can effectively use the software selected.
    • The company is willing to provide a list of local client practices that are similar to yours that you can call and visit. Be sure to take the time to visit practices that are using the software in the way you intend. If you want to be paperless, it is particularly important for you to see how easy it is to enter medical record information.
    • The company will include software support. Ask the following questions about support services:
      — How much does support cost, and what are the hours for your time zone?
      — Does support include updates to the software? How many updates are done each year?
      — Does the company provide training on new software enhancements? How often, and at what cost?
    • If the company sells hardware, ask the following questions:
      — Are installation and support included in the hardware price? What is the cost of installation and ongoing support of the hardware and the network?
      — Is the hardware name brand or built by the company?
      — How does the company support the hardware?
      — If your system goes down, how quickly can you get a response to fix the problem? This is especially critical if you are going to be a paperless practice.
    • If the software company you choose does not sell hardware, look at companies that specialize in the sale, implementation, and support of hardware and networks. A local hardware vendor may tell you that it can set up your network for you; however, be very careful and require the network to be set up the way the software vendor specifies. Many local hardware companies have their own ways of setting up networks that do not always work efficiently with practice management software.

    The Bottom Line

    Be sure you take all the time necessary for the following steps: (1) identify what you want the software to do in your practice, (2) write down your requirements, (3) send them to six vendors, (4) review all the vendor responses, (5) reduce the vendor list to three, (6) check references, (7) visit similar practices using the software, (8) check the vendor’s financials, and (9) review conversion of your data and the types of training programs available. Completing all these steps takes valuable time, but selecting the right software for your practice will pay for itself over and over again.

    Bob Bullock is the owner of Bullock Veterinary Consulting, LLC (bullockveterinaryconsulting@gmx.com).

    NEXT: Surgical Views — Navicular Syndrome in Equine Patients Anatomy, Causes, and Diagnosis [CE]

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