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Getting the IT right in the practice

by
01 July 2015, at 12:00am

CHRIS PALLETT of Bespoke Computing Ltd believes that technology improvements start with people and explains how practices can reap the benefits of modern computing and communications

MANY thousands of veterinary practices have functioned perfectly well on paper-based systems for decades.

Usually the office and diary functions are held together by dependable reception and admin staff and that human touch is valued by practitioners and clients alike.

These days, however, technology inevitably and inexorably creeps into the system, whether it was planned to be there or not!

Of course there are so many ways it is useful on either an individual or collective basis that it can’t be ignored. In fact, many practices have already discovered that embracing new IT pays huge dividends for all concerned, with better connectivity between staff and the resulting time-saving benefits being near the top of the list of positives.

The risk is that the transformation is not carried out in a managed way. That can lead to chaos in managing data, serious security risks and uncontrolled costs. The nightmare of a staff member who holds all the passwords becoming suddenly unavailable doesn’t bear thinking about!

Improvements start with people

What usually surprises clients is when I, as an IT practitioner of 20 years, tell them that technology improvements start with people. You can have all of the shiny hardware and latest internetbased services, but unless the people who use it are comfortable with it, embrace it and use it responsibly, any business will struggle to maximise the potential of the investment.

The positive news is that this can all be achieved smoothly. The trick is not to introduce technology that causes stress and frustration, or to introduce in a way that achieves the same negative outcome, but to do it seamlessly.

What happens so often is the piecemeal introduction of IT. Someone opens a Dropbox account and files, photos and spreadsheets get stored there because it’s a user-friendly way to share. Another handful of computers gets added to the network which was already creaking and relying solely on an ageing router. Some staff or partners want to use their personal tablets or smartphone and a Gmail/Hotmail/me.com/Yahoo account that works nicely on those devices. Does that sound familiar?

In this case you have data that are not secured or backed-up, that are controlled by one person’s personal account. Your fairly ad hoc internal network starts to struggle with the traffic (throwing up errors, taking an age to print, crashing regularly) to everyone’s frustration, and is probably full of security holes and a mixture of Windows and Apple operating systems.

And some of the team are working from their iPhone calendar and Gmail account, giving no cohesion, back-up safety net or accountability in front of the Information Commissioner.

It happens so easily and the chances are it’s also costing you money with random bits of spending on services that someone thought was a good idea but which are not costed-in or budgeted for in the longer-term.

What’s really positive, though, is that veterinary practices are perfectly placed to reap the benefits of modern computing and communications. An often mobile workforce now has the means to stay in touch wherever they are, synchronising seamlessly across a unified platform that brings together collective diaries and collaborative workspaces.

All of that should be protected, in the background, by regularly updated virus protection (and by regularly I mean potentially hourly, as in the systems we use), file back-ups and e-mail journaling which keeps an irrefutable record of all of the electronic to and fro.

It would all link neatly into a system that has all of the capacity it needs to move the information around, on computers which are kept running at their optimum performance, with the latest security fixes always in place and which are set up with the staff who will use them so that they serve their needs – and not the other way around.

The telecoms could move from leaving an out-of-hours mobile number on an answerphone to a versatile yet inexpensive digital exchange that lets you route calls to where they’re needed automatically or at the push of a button. You can even extend your office phone network into the homes of those who might take emergency calls simply by using the internet.

Achievable within budget

It sounds like IT utopia but it’s actually very achievable within the typical practice budget, as long as it is planned around what’s needed and what will be used. With the tools in place, it’s merely a matter of keeping a longer-term view and reasonable budget allocation to keep everything up-to-date and replaced when necessary.

The average practice wouldn’t be able to justify an IT expert in-house and often the job falls to a willing partner or office manager and that causes them additional stress in trying to master a range of specialist topics. Our clients have told us that even knowing where to start is quite a trial.

So the trick is to get the advice. Get the project designed and planned by a service provider, a kind of outsourced IT director, who will then go on to manage security, updates, hardware replacement and user-provisioning for a predictable and affordable retainer.

One practice we worked with was Shropshire Farm Vets, which over the course of 10 years expanded from two vet partners and two support staff to 12 vets, including four partners and five support staff. With that expansion came the kind of technology issues I’ve previously described.

What we achieved for them was a carefully planned replacement of the practice’s hardware (yes, multiple operating systems), the provision of anti-virus products they could actually trust to be protecting them, dual monitors on the reception desk to aid the admin staff and mobile access to appointments and other communications for vets while out of calls. We monitor their set-up remotely and connect to their network to solve most issues when they arise without a physical visit being needed.

It’s easy to see the technology requirements of your business as a distraction from the important work and it’s equally easy to let things drift on if they seem to be working. What has been made clear to me and my colleagues, working with veterinary practices, is that getting the IT right is a time-saving, efficiency-boosting eyeopener that they wish they’d pursued years ago, allowing them to get on with the job of being vets.