By Debbie Boone, BS, CVPM
My first software purchase was on a trip to an AAHA conference in Washington, DC.
It was the late 80s, and thank goodness my choices were limited to about five possibilities. Digital medical records were still very new to the market, and these software offerings were more like computerized cash registers compared to today’s sophisticated systems.
Fortunately, today’s software shoppers now have many options, but this also makes it more difficult to decide which is best. As a consultant, I have familiarity with many of the current offerings and have walked through demos on almost all of them. Legacy server-based practice management systems like Cornerstone, Avimark, Impromed, and Intravet now compete with cloud-based systems like Provet Cloud, EzyVet, Hippo, and Shepherd, just to name a few.
If you are located in an area without stable, reliable internet service, cloud-based may not be the best option. Otherwise, cloud-based software is the way to go. One decision down, many more to go! Then the demos begin, and they all start to blur into one, big, overwhelming hodgepodge of similar features.
After years of digging around in veterinary software, I found it is not the major functions that make a practice management software good, but rather the small things that otherwise can become daily aggravations like 100 small paper cuts. Here are six tips to ask to avoid these little cuts:
1. Map out your migration needs
First, make sure you understand your time commitment when moving to digital from paper or migrating current data to your new system. If you are currently using only paper records, ask what service codes come pre-loaded in the new software. It is unfortunate that, unlike human medicine, veterinary medicine has no standard medical and diagnostic codes. You may need to add, delete, or edit any canned codes along with adding pricing, inventory counts, and add markup and margins. If you have existing software, these codes should migrate, but you may still need to map them and do some housekeeping like removing old unused service codes or medications.
Even more importantly, know what will and won’t migrate. I discovered the hard way in a migration years ago that invoices didn’t migrate, only balances. This made it impossible to go back and view invoice details if a client had a question. We could see all the medical history but no pricing. So, I advise anyone moving from server-based to the cloud to keep their old software active on the old server for at least a year so they can have that reference base if needed.
2. Lean into the new software learning curve
Usually, the scouting and final purchase decision involves the manager and/or the practice owner, but it is important that more key players get involved in the purchase and in the training. If the manager quits mid-transition, for instance, there should be several others in the practice that have been evaluating the software and trained on the system.
Ideally the software is built to be intuitive, but there can be a struggle in overcoming the “muscle memory” of the keystrokes involved in working the old system versus how to accomplish tasks in the new one. I have often seen staff members accomplishing a task but doing it with a lot more effort than required. It is for this reason I always suggest budgeting for a return visit by the on-site trainer about six months after the implementation date. By then, everyone on staff should be familiar with the new practice management software and also know what they find unwieldy or frustrating. These issues can be addressed and solved by the trainer. The result: everyone is happier and your major purchase becomes more effective and valuable.
3. Expect more from support and user resources
Ask how you will access customer support. When consulting with practices, I am routinely shocked when I ask about building a rapport with the solution provider, only to be told that support has to be called and that they have 48 hours to return my call. Support should be a quick call away. When you need help, you should get it quickly.
A typical software support manual used to be about two inches thick. Now all the manuals are online. This is fine as long as you can figure out what you need to find and what it is called. (Case in point: every software I have worked with calls their reports by a slightly different name and they contain slightly different data.) You should have available user-friendly tutorials on how to do tasks, and they should be friendly enough for the non-geeks on your team.
4. Customizability is key
Smart practices are always growing and changing to meet the needs of their clients, which makes a software’s customization capabilities another priority.
For example, can the software support team help build reports and queries for your needs? What would happen if you decided to add mobile hospice care? Or large animal care services? Will the software be as mobile as you require? Could you add a satellite practice and scale up? How many licenses and seats come with your original purchase? Do you have to buy bundles or can you purchase seat licenses by need?
5. Ask questions, get answers
Don’t be reluctant to ask questions of the salesperson or your peers! You’re making a major investment in the success of your practice and you want it to be the correct choice. For another source of information, social media has many software user groups you can ask to join and then view discussions for common issues.
But be direct with the salesperson. This is about choosing well, so don’t let them slide on answering important and challenging questions. Ask them about integration capabilities, too. If you use existing tools like apps, online schedulers, outside labs, etc., make sure your new software allows them to integrate. Some companies intentionally refuse integrations, forcing you to buy their tools instead of using the ones that you are familiar with and prefer to use.
6. Don't forget about the hardware
Something as simple as a label printer can be incredibly frustrating when it breaks and the replacement is only available through your software provider (rather than simply visiting the office supply store down the street). Find out if you can use easily available printers, monitors, and even tablets to avoid being locked into very specific models and brands.
Consider your diagnostic equipment. Will you want your monitoring equipment, imaging equipment, and lab results to seamlessly integrate with your practice management software? How challenging are these integrations? Also consider any digital purchases you plan in the future and confirm they too will integrate easily.
The bottom line:
The right software is the backbone of your practice, so choose carefully. Sometimes it is easier to visualize your best option by creating a simple spreadsheet of features and integrations. Use the questions I have posed to create your columns and check off the boxes that you consider mandatory.
Do your research but don’t fall down the rabbit hole of decision gridlock. By being methodical and asking the same questions at every demonstration and of every salesperson, you should be able to make an accurate comparison and a wise decision.
Keep in mind that cost is a factor only in the absence of value. Make sure the solution provider isn’t costing you in inefficiency, difficulty of use, and frustration because it doesn’t integrate with other digital tools. Software is an investment where your decision determines how your team will use their time many years into the future.
Debbie Boone, BS, CVPM
Debbie Boone, BS, CVPM, has worked for the veterinary profession for more than 35 years as a manager, consultant, writer, and speaker. She enjoys using her expertise to improve workplace culture and the well-being of veterinary professionals. Debbie hosts The Bend, a vodcast which invites guests to share stories of navigating unexpected change. Her newest book, Hospitality in Healthcare, is now available at all major booksellers.