Choosing Practice Management Software

Your practice management software should serve as the foundation system that drives all the business functions within your organization.
Credit: Dusty Perin

Your practice management software should serve as the foundation system that drives all the business functions within your organization. As an equine practice manager, I strongly believe the most important piece of technology in any veterinary practice, regardless of size, is its practice management software. As a practice management consultant, I have the opportunity to work with many different practice management software systems. While most offer the same basic functions—such as billing and recording of treatments—all practice management software systems are not created equal and vary greatly in their ability to truly “manage” an equine practice. 

I’ve encountered too many practices struggling to get by using poorly designed software to run their business. I’ve also seen the positive impact that a well-designed practice management software can make for a practice when properly utilized. So you may be asking yourself, with so many options on the market, how does one go about choosing the right practice management software?

Unfortunately there’s no simple answer. Navigating all the hype and technobabble the marketing guys put out is enough to make your head spin.

I know; I’ve been there.

So when I went shopping for a new software system for our practice a few years ago, I put together a list of what was important, what we couldn’t live without and what would be nice to have, but not necessarily a deal-breaker. Then I interviewed just about every veterinary practice management software company on the planet who said they knew what a horse was.

What I learned is that most practice management software systems are really just reworked small animal billing systems. And when I started asking the hard questions, most programs didn’t live up to their own hype.

What’s Important

Data Management and Reporting—For me, this was a top priority. As the old business adage goes, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. As a practice manager, it’s important that your software be capable of measuring and delivering important management information in clear, concise reports. A good system will have a list of automated reports that show you how the practice is doing. Here’s a short list of some of the reports I want to see:

• Production Reports These reports should indicate sales revenues by several categories, such as profit centers, locations, by doctor, by service/products, etc. These reports tell you how money flows into your practice.

• Costs Reports These reports should include the direct costs associated with sales of goods and services in your practice. They should correlate with the same profit centers, locations, etc. described above. Of course, this assumes that the software actually tracks inventory and other costs. Make sure your next system includes inventory and cost tracking capabilities.

• Accounts Receivable These reports tell you how much money you are owed, but have not yet received. They should also be broken down by location, by doctor, by profit center, by client, by trainer, etc. In addition, these reports should be “aged.” In other words, the report should indicate how old each debt is in relation to the date the report is run.

• Inventory Reports These reports include all inventory purchases and costs by each location (pharmacy, stock room, practice vehicles, etc.). They should also track the inventory you have on hand at any given moment and record any internal transfers of inventory between departments, location, etc.

• Other Managerial Reports A good software program includes a plethora of managerial reports you can use to make informed decisions. Some examples include: New Customer Reports, Top Client List, Top Sellers, Profitability Reports, Client Email List, Price Books, Doctor Commission Reports, Patient Reminders Reports, and many more.

System Features and Functions

User Interface—Because your practice management software will touch virtually every member of your team, it’s critical that the interface is intuitive, user-friendly and easy to teach. This means a well-designed home screen that displays relevant information and easy-to-understand functionality “buttons.”

The software should also offer easy-to-use means of entering information about clients, patients, trainers, doctors, profit centers, locations, medical findings and notes, SOAPs, procedures performed, and products used and dispensed.

Many software systems offer preset and customizable worksheets that help guide exams and procedures and capture all the relevant data.

In addition, quality software systems provide interactive hospital maps, “virtual whiteboards” and “electronic treatment sheets,” thus creating a paperless practice.

Hardware—There are some things you need to consider before making a software decision. Will the new system require you to replace or add new computers? Most likely the answer is “Yes.”

In today’s world, computer technology is outdated very quickly. Computers are forever evolving and becoming smaller and more powerful.

Most of today’s tablets and PCs are capable of handling modern practice management software systems. The better systems are designed to work just as well with handheld tablets as they do with desktop PCs.

Server or Hosted—Will the software require you to purchase a server or will it be “hosted” in the cloud? There are pros and cons to each of these options. A server can be expensive, and you usually need an IT guru to set up and maintain it. But if you do not have excellent Internet service in your area, buying a server might be your best option. In addition, onsite servers are usually faster than hosted solutions for functions such as printing (especially month-end statement runs), running lengthy reports, integrating with other modalities into your practice, etc. If you have fast, dependable Internet service in your area, a hosted solution might be the way to go.

Offline Capabilities—If your practice has an ambulatory component, chances are there are times you’re without good Internet service. The leading practice management software systems provide an offline solution that allows you to look up and enter data and take client payments without the need for an Internet connection. Typically the data is stored locally on the laptop or tablet, then “synced” with the main database once back at the office.

Integration—Quality veterinary practice management software systems will integrate with other modalities, such as imaging and laboratory modalities. This functionality allows users to access patient images or lab results directly from the patient file in the software.

In addition, some systems have integrated with major veterinary distributors. This allows practices to buy directly from the vendors electronically through the practice management software. When products are delivered, the packing list is automatically received into software, thus updating inventory—and the costs and pricing information—seamlessly and with minimal human input.

Making the Decision

This is one of the hardest, but most important, decisions you will make as a practice manager or owner. There is almost nothing more painful and taxing on your practice than transitioning to a different practice management software system. It sucks! No, really. It sucks!

Change is hard, and most people resist it. However, a good practice management software company will provide the tools and support you need to train yourself and your staff and make sure the project is a success.

Once you “go live” with your new software, the better companies will stay engaged by providing ongoing coaching and support to your practice.

This brings up an important point: Some practice management software companies offer an out-of-the-box solution. This type of software is basically a disk shipped to you with minimal instructions and training. You install it and go. The cost is minimal, but so is the support and functionality … in my opinion.

The other kind of practice management software system is subscription-based.

This type of system is generally more robust and includes ongoing updates, improvements and technical support for a monthly fee. With the evolving nature of technology, I usually suggest this type of solution for practices with whom I consult.

Final Thoughts

I’ve seen so many practice owners make the mistake of investing in the wrong practice management software because it was cheaper, or they didn’t know what to look for, or they didn’t have time to shop. They knew it wasn’t the right choice, but it met the immediate needs to at least get their bills out.

These folks are frustrated and know they need to change, but remember what I said about the pain of changing software? Yes, it is painful to change software, but it’s even more painful staying with the wrong software.

If you’re not happy with your current practice management software, it’s time to go shopping. Take this article (and maybe a couple of others) and start comparing what’s out there. Ask others at well-managed equine practices what software they’re using and if they’re happy with their system. Schedule a demo with a couple of companies.

If you’re going to the AAEP Convention this year, go through the trade show and look at what’s out there. Look at several options, then make an informed decision. In the end you’ll be happy you did your homework.

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