I always like to hear that little voice from my computer say, "You've got mail!" It's the anticipation of wondering who has contacted me! Well, guess what? "You've got mail" is not just for the common household. I predict that in the very near future we will be utilizing email daily out of our dental hygiene operatories.
I already use it and really love it! The learning curve was not demanding because I already knew how to use my home email for communication. The email steps are pretty much the same for the office. The fact that I can communicate with outside office specialists is one of the incredible advantages of having a computer inside my operatory. Once connected to the Internet, your outside referral communications increase dramatically!
As dental hygienists, we usually are the ones who know the most intimate details about our patients needs and wants, yet we have the least communication with the patient referrals for gum conditions. Having email communications with your office's referral specialist makes discussing, identifying, and treating patient concerns effortless. These may be patients with whom you have important information to share.
Having worked with a specialist who received referrals from general dentists, the main complaint I heard from the specialist was, "Lack of communication details from the general dentist." A referring patient would show up with a handwritten note, if that, and the specialist would have to decipher why the patient wanted to be seen. Most of the time the patient didn't even know what condition they had. So when a computer was put in my operatory I discovered the tools to offset this communication problem.
My recent hygiene email experience
I had a patient one day whose central incisor on his mandible was inflamed and exhibited an almost 8mm pocket. I had seen this patient three months prior and no such probe reading was even recorded! I took a periapical digital X-ray and instructed the patient to contact a periodontist of our recommendation. My patient was very willing and wondered how to take his X-ray with him, given we took a digital periapical. In no time at all the kinks were worked out and I was able to export the digital X-ray jpeg out of the X-ray software program. I called the periodontal office for their email address. It took about four tries to correctly export the image. Finally, I attached the digital X-ray to the email with an explanation of the history of my patient's gum health.
The periodontist emailed back to ask, "What is it you want me to look at?" I emailed him back with my observations and what I felt should be addressed. The amazing discovery to me was the specialist would have been totally out of the loop if not for my email correspondence! I was elated that I had communicated within the same day with our outside specialist. Our patient had teamwork happening for him. No doubt when the patient arrived to be seen by the specialist, the why, what, when, and how had already been addressed! This created a smooth transition for all.
So often the hygienist is neglected in this "teamwork" process. What a crime! We work on the patients, and know them inside and out. I'm really looking forward to the day when we can, with a simple click, attach report findings and give professional opinions about the best prognosis for a patient. How empowering is this?
Hygiene email set up
Some management software programs have a somewhat limited use of email. In order for email to work you must have an Internet connection. Once connected, programs such as Internet Explorer and an email program are essential. Once these requirements are operating normally, the steps needed for set-up are simple.
• Establishing patient email addresses - Search the "family file" module for a place to enter email addresses. From there, all you need to do is click on the send document icon, and it brings up your normal email program (Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, etc.). You can use it exactly as you would your home email account.
• Exporting images - In order to send images by email, you go into the image software and export the images (X-Rays or whatever) from their stored format into standard jpeg files. You may want to set up a folder specifically for this, so that the images will be easy to find. Then you can either add them as an attachment or embed them as a picture within the email. This works exactly like your home email.
A concern in moving digital imaging of a patient from one computer to another is making sure that the sent image is perfectly reproduced as the received image. Normal email has a typical error-correcting protocol that tries to ensure that all messages go through with accuracy. In general, this works well and is sufficient for this purpose.
• Clip and paste - The further use of another email function is limited to what you can clip-and-paste from within the dental software management program. The clip-and-paste method is somewhat useful to send a patient ledger information, continuing care, and whatever else can be copied temporarily into memory.
The different software modules do not have specific export functions to output data into the email being composed. Likewise, the email process is not automated, meaning that you primarily do one email at a time.
• Video conferencing images - The other place that images can be sent is within the imaging software itself, via the "video conferencing" module, if this is in your office management software. Here, sending images is not an Internet-based function, but a defined direct relationship with the other office. You either need to have a modem on each end or a secure connection over broadband. The imaging software has a more sophisticated error-correcting logic, with an actual pixel-counting process that ensures accuracy.
Using email can provide some significant benefits for the hygiene department, but it is by no means a totally automated, hands-free operation. Deciding to utilize your office email program should be as comfortable as using your email at home. The only real momentary difficulty is learning where the images are stored and navigating to locate them for attachments.
Author's note: With the recent HIPAA laws in place, your patient will need to grant you permission to send his or her private dental information to a referring specialist.
Victoria DaCosta, RDH, BS, is founder and president of Hy-Tech Solutions. A practicing dental hygienist for 18 years, DaCosta is a speaker, author, constultant, and an expert in the design of medical/dental sorftware. She is also on the new technologies committee for the California Dental Hygienitsts' Association. DaCosta can be contacted at www.hy-techsolutions.com.