Using a new piece of equipment for the first time is like playing with a new toy. But the technology is more than just fun and games-here's how it can help you, your patients, and your practice.
New equipment is just cool. It's shiny, comes with lots of bells and whistles, and keeps your job interesting. And if the practice makes a sound investment, it allows you to do your job better. But how do you know which items are more than just high-tech toys? Go straight to the source: In this case, veterinary hospital staffers who use practice management software, in-house diagnostics, digital dental radiology, and therapy laser on a daily basis. These technologies benefit both the team members' practices and patients—and they can help yours too.
Estimated cost: $3,000 to $12,000
How it helps the patient: Unnecessary extractions become a thing of the past. "We want dogs and cats to keep as many teeth in their mouths as possible," says Lori Bollinger, RVT, a dental technician at Camelot Court Animal Clinic in Leawood, Kan. "When I discover a dental abnormality such as a pocket in the gumline, an enamel defect, or color change, I can take a radiograph to determine whether the tooth needs to be extracted. It's much more precise. Before we had the ability to do radiographs, we extracted more teeth because we were playing a guessing game." Radiographs are also instantaneous. If veterinary technicians don't get the right angle on the first shot, they can take another. This is especially beneficial to pets, who are sedated while the radiographs are being taken. "When an animal is under anesthesia, every minute counts," Bollinger says.
How it helps the practice: "It's another service we can charge for," says Bollinger, whose practice bills $18 per radiograph. "We feel good about this because we only take one if we need it. People get really nervous when you talk about extractions because they don't want their pet to lose any teeth. They're not worried about an $18 charge if we can save the tooth." Also, having such advanced technology inspires confidence in clients. "I think people are impressed," Bollinger says. "It's made our dental program much more comprehensive and has added a whole other dimension to dentistry."
How it helps the team: As a rule, dentistry provides an excellent area for technicians to focus on and advance their careers. For example, at Camelot Court, not everyone can take digital radiographs. "It takes some skill and a lot of practice to get it right," says Bollinger, who took classes to learn how to get precise pictures of each tooth. "We take x-rays of the premolar number 4 tooth most often, a three-rooted tooth which can be challenging. But it's an important tooth for a dog, so you want to save it if possible." And most often they can, because the image allows Bollinger to see potential problems that a change in color or enamel might not always point to. "We know we've done the best we can and we don't have to guess anymore," she says. "I feel really good about that."
Estimated cost: $15,000 to $25,000
How it helps the patient: "Therapy laser is a painless treatment with no adverse side effects," says Meredith White, a rehabilitation technician at Metzger Animal Hospital in State College, Pa. "The animal doesn't need to be sedated, the area you're working on doesn't need to be shaved. All in all, it's a relaxing procedure for both the pet and their owner." It can also be used for a variety of reasons—everything from pain management to wound care. White says several of her patients have seen satisfactory results on incisions that wouldn't heal after trying numerous topical solutions. And combined with other treatments, therapy laser can sometimes prevent the need for surgery. For example, in cats or dogs with a partial cruciate rupture, a combination of therapy laser, joint supplements, and painkillers can rehabilitate pets to a point where they might not need immediate surgical intervention on the injury, White says.
How it helps the practice: Therapy laser sessions don't require a lot of time—an average treatment runs anywhere for 2.5 to 8 minutes—and, because they're a premium service, veterinary hospitals can charge accordingly. At Metzger Animal Hospital, therapy laser treatments are usually sold in packs of six, which works out to about $40 to $50 per session. White says she often does five or six treatments a day, which essentially breaks down to about $300 in the practice's pocket for a mere 48 minutes of her time. Because laser sessions do take so little time, if your practice utilizes a drop-off system, it's easy to schedule these treatments throughout the day, White says, instead of requiring the client to make an appointment.
How it helps the team: Therapy laser is relatively easy to learn. While White is in an intensive training course about how the laser affects the different structures, functions, and muscles of the animal's body, it's easy for her to show her fellow team members how to operate the laser. The laser is a compact, mobile machine (the laser is administered to the pet through a small vibrating wand) so it doesn't require a designated room or area, which frees up space in the clinic. And because it's a non-invasive procedure, clients can be in the room while their pet is receiving treatments, which creates a teaching moment, White says. "Since the animal is relaxed and the machine is quiet, I can show owners different icing or massage techniques that they can try," she says. "Clients love to know what they can do at home to help their pet." And this makes everyone happier.
Estimated cost: $5,000 to $6,000 (software only)
How it helps the patient: The question should be, "How doesn't it help the patient?" "We've built our whole client service around this software," says Linda Wenner, practice manager at Cascade Animal Medical Center in Rochester, Minn. "We go through our entire new client entering process while we're on the phone. We get their information, where they heard about us, etc. When they come in, we print out a check-in report. Once they're taken into an exam room, we have full electronic medical records. It's completely paperless and every communication is in that medical record."
The software also makes it easy for clients to get their questions or concerns addressed in a timely manner. "The software has a daily planner, so if you call with a question, we can go right to your file, type in your question and the message goes through to the doctor. When he calls you, the conversation is time and date stamped," Wenner says. Having a standard system also eliminates confusion as to what procedures a pet has had or which medications it has used—especially when patients see more than one doctor. Everyone follows the same protocol when entering information into the electronic medical record. And every time clients leave the clinic, they receive a printout of everything their pet received during that visit, as well as the option to have any radiographs that were taken e-mailed to them immediately.
How it helps the practice: Comprehensive software allows veterinarians to order blood tests, radiographs, and other procedures right from their computer screens. As soon as they put in a request, a charge for said procedure is automatically billed to the client. "Before, a client would drop off a stool sample for testing, and we'd forget to charge them, or a doctor would order x-rays and the client wouldn't get a bill," says Wenner, who estimates that about 15 about of heartworm test kits sold each month were slipping through the cracks. "Now, you can't even push a button without the system asking you who the test is for." The software system that Wenner's office uses is also compatible with QuickBooks, which allows her to keep accurate pharmacy and radiology totals, among other things.
How it helps the team: Employees don't have to file paper—ever. In fact, the team at Cascade Animal Medical Center freed up two receptionists to work in other parts of the clinic once the office went completely paperless four years ago. "You don't realize how much time you waste looking for files, pulling files, label making, copying sheets of paper," Wenner says.
Dorothy Sanders, Cascade's patient coordinator supervisor, highly recommends upgrading practice management software and going paperless. "Everything is on the computer and you can find clients under their pet's name if you need to," she says. "If somebody needs their medical records or a vaccine certificate, we can print it off and they can take it with them. We're constantly advancing." And while such a high functioning system may sound complicated, it's actually easy to learn. Wenner's staff trained for six months, but once they implemented the new system, within a week they were no longer relying on paper files. Within a month all of the files had been shredded. "It was so freeing," she says.
Estimated cost: About $25,000
How it helps the patient: "From a lab work standpoint, we have the ability to take a look at what's going on inside a cat or dog and have an answer in 10 minutes, whereas if you went to an outside lab, you'd have to wait 24 hours," says Trevor Lyon, RVT, co-owner of the Bells Ferry Veterinary Hospital in Acworth, Ga. His practice uses in-house diagnostics for heartworm tests, blood work, fecal testing, cytology, and radiology. "It's the power of now. We have the answer before the patient leaves the building and can determine whether to treat them here or send them to a specialist."
How it helps the practice: "The more services you offer, the better you are at keeping people in-house instead of having them spend their money somewhere else," Lyon says. The ability to provide immediate answers also increases the bottom line. "We charge more for something that's done in-house because if you need to know that answer now, we have to stop what we're doing to get it for you," says Lyon, who adds that their in-house system makes it easier to charge for services that were otherwise going unbilled. "We require senior blood work for all patients over age 7, and now we go to a computer to make a request for whatever test we're running, so it allows a charge to be put in right away." Also, in-house diagnostics afford the opportunity for team members to e-mail clients their lab results, playing to pet owners' tech-savvy tendencies.
How it helps the team: "Digital radiology is so fast that it doesn't take up a lot of the staff's time," says Lyon. "It allows the staff to have information available to them so they can make quick decisions. The data is at their fingertips at a computer terminal." The equipment is also easy to navigate. In many instances, a technician simply drops the sample into the machine, walks away, and waits for the results. This frees that person up to spend more time interacting with patients and clients.
All this equipment sounds like it would be a great asset for your practice, right? If it were up to you, you'd already be using it. But you're not the practice owner so you don't hold the buying power. This may be technically true, but many practice owners and managers look to proactive team members for help making equipment investment decisions. So if you're dying for your practice to make a purchase, do your homework and show management all the details, including the tangibles (cost versus return) and the intangibles (necessary training). Who knows, you may just get a shiny new toy that keeps pets healthier.
Michelle Hainer is a freelance writer living in New York City. Please send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.