Safe Internet Usage in a Dental Practice by Dr. Lorne Lavine

Dentaltown Magazine

by Dr. Lorne Lavine

The internet is a remarkable driving force behind today’s society. The Industrial Revolution may very well take a backseat in how the internet is contributing to the economy; according to one study, it will create 25 million jobs in the next 15 years! I doubt I could overstate the influence the internet has on every aspect of our lives.

The number of reasons why you should—and some argue you must—utilize the internet as a useful tool at your practice is a big number. I’m going to focus on the six that I believe are the most important.

But before I begin to explore those reasons: Looking at the number of practices that already have internet access at the office versus those that don’t indicates lingering fears of how the internet can harm the practice.

According to a Canadian study in 2006, 74 percent of all respondents (dentists in private practice) reported they had internet access at the office. While I would expect Canadian and U.S. doctors to be similar in their use of technology and the internet, the study did point out that, according to their research, Canadian doctors are more apt to have access than U.S. doctors. A more recent but anecdotal poll of U.S. hygienists in 2017 indicated 74 percent had access to the internet at the office. At face value, the recent poll indicates little change in the number of practices that have internet access.

I’m a proponent of using the internet as a useful tool at the practice. However, as with any tool, you must understand how to use it safely. I will address potential risks and provide guidelines on how to mitigate those risks in favor of the greater good.

Why you should bring the internet to work
1. Data backup. If we can agree on only one thing, surely it is that nothing’s more important than your patient data. From a purely clinical perspective, providing exceptional oral health care requires clinical data. From a valuation perspective, you’d be hard-pressed to be able to sell your practice without patient information. The surest way to secure your data from loss is an online backup. Local backups are susceptible to hardware failure, catastrophe and theft; and taking data off-site on removable media is a huge HIPAA risk.

2. Operational efficiency. With the internet, the tasks of verifying insurance benefits, sending referrals, processing prescriptions, and conducting other work is reduced to a series of clicks. These everyday tasks are completed in a fraction of the time.

3. Knowledge base access. Surely there are instances when you need corroborating information to help you with a diagnosis, treatment plan, prescription or drug interaction. The internet provides immediate, unlimited access to information you may need.

4. Software updates. Your investment in practice management software, like any significant investment, requires regular maintenance in the form of updates. Today’s management software, as well as practically all of the software in your practice (including the operating system on your hardware), keeps itself updated via the internet. Maintaining all of your software manually is a monumental, time-burning task.

5. VoIP telephones. Today, more small businesses are using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone systems than older analog systems. Internet-based telecom provides the small business with a much richer and broader set of features. Government bodies are seeing and recognizing the shift from analog to VoIP. This summer, Illinois joined 19 states that have authorized the end of copper landline servicing so the telecom industries can focus on VoIP technology. All of this activity in telecom technology isn’t suggesting the end of the analog phone; rather, it is being proactive in replacing analog systems as quickly as possible. You’ll need the internet to bring VoIP to your practice.

6. Cloud-based management software. Every year, the number of dental practices using cloud-based management software increases and the number of doctors using client-server software decreases. The cloud delivers more benefits and advantages than what you find in older software; most management software companies today spend the bulk of their development dollars on the cloud. Of course, you’ll need the internet at your office to take advantage of this technology.

The risks of bringing the internet to work
While there are clear benefits to having the internet working for you at the practice, there are risks. Again, I am a proponent of a “connected” practice, but I’ve also seen practices pummeled due to lack of security and clear team policies. The most prevalent risks are:

Malware. Viruses, spam and adware are the biggest contributors to malware. Viruses are designed to destroy, while spam and adware are designed to deliver an endless stream of unwanted promotional messages that get in the way of productivity.

Ransomware. Tales of doctors having to pay thousands to ransom their patient information are everywhere. For the shady side of the internet, ransomware has been a big moneymaker.

Hacking. Cracking into your server and stealing patient information is not as lucrative for criminals as it has been in the past. Frankly, the vast number of stolen records from retailers has flooded the black market with personal information, driving the price down.

Decreased staff productivity. With access to free Wi-Fi, your team members may spend more time checking their social media streams or watching cat videos on YouTube than looking after patients or calling patients to fill an empty chair.

How to mitigate the risks and maximize the benefits
For every potential risk in bringing the internet to the practice, there is a mitigating solution. Here are five actions you can take to help your practice maximize the benefits of internet access.

Internet use policy. Your policy must be written and concise, and have consequences that you’re willing to enforce. The policy should educate staff on: safe internet use, such as never downloading and installing any applications or email attachments; if or when team members can access social media; whether personal email accounts can be accessed by practice computers (and if so, provide principles of safe computing); the creation and protection of passwords; how to avoid viruses; whether the computers can be used for gaming or other type of entertainment; and that while using the practice’s computers, all activity and communication are subject to audit. Every team member should sign the policy, which should be reviewed frequently.

Properly configured firewall. The number of adolescents living in America’s neighborhoods today who are able to crack an off-the-shelf firewall in a matter of minutes is large and growing. Moreover, when you can find a YouTube video that shows you how to get past a firewall, that should tell you that your practice would do well to enlist a professional to install and configure your firewall. Again, as a dentist I understand the tinker and do-it-yourself tendency. But in this case, with patient information and your livelihood sitting behind the firewall, you should call an IT professional to assist you.

Robust anti-malware software. Every dentist understands the importance of installing software that protects practice hardware from being hijacked or ransomed. Like any application, your anti-malware software needs to be frequently updated to remain effective. Make sure the software is able to update itself with little to no intervention on your part.

Frequent staff training. In your morning huddles, you may wish to take time as needed to review your internet use policy, how to identify potential malware schemes, and how and to whom to report potential breaches. Your IT service provider may have educational materials or videos that can be shared with staff.

Continuous monitoring. Understand that bad players are always looking for a new way to thwart anti-malware software or to deceive your team into clicking on something they shouldn’t. A capable IT professional can implement a comprehensive monitoring system that will alert them to potential trouble before it can harm your practice. Ask your IT professional if they offer a managed services package to help protect your practice.

At first, the work and preparation required to keep your practice safe from the internet would seem to outweigh the benefits of using the internet at work. However, once you’ve completed steps to protect your practice, every practice can leverage internet access to make its work more efficient and productive.

Author Bio
Author Dr. Lorne Lavine former periodontist, is an authority on technology in the dental practice. Lavine, the founder of The Digital Dentist, has more than 30 years invested in the dental and dental technology fields, including extensive hands-on experience with most practice management software, image management software, digital cameras, intraoral cameras, computers and networks.
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