Hidden Costs of Paper Dental Records

One of the major objections raised to electronic dental records is the cost. The initial outlay, combined with the ongoing maintenance and back-up needs, is a big commitment. But what people rarely discuss in the same breath is the cost of paper records. Paper records are familiar, and their costs are built into the current operating budget, so they’re invisible costs.

Larry Emmott, DDS, lays out the costs of paper records in an article in the Journal of the American College of Dentists. The paper, file folders, file cabinets, paperclips, and time spent creating, filling in and duplicating patient information is estimated to cost at least $1,000/patient, and take up a big chunk of office real estate. Just the paper is estimated at $3 a patient. Chart contents like X-rays, bitewings and film add additional processing and file cost–Larry estimates about $4 per chart. By contrast, Larry Emmott lays out the costs of buying a data server as only about $3,500, and taking up a foot of office space.

Larry Emmott also points out what he sees as a major pitfall of many attempts to use and integrate electronic records, and that is to go only part-way. If paper charts are used to track progress notes and diagnoses, then someone has to sit and enter all that information into the electronic record–and the practice still has to pay for the paper, file folders, clips and storage space of the paper chart. Going partway, he says, leads to chaos:

“What the office ends up with is a mess. Everything is done at least twice; the paper chart is still needed and no one is ever sure if something is on paper or in the computer. As a result, the computer chart doesn’t save time and money, it makes things worse…Overcoming the inertia of change is frequently the most difficult task of going paperless.”

To save money, patient time, and reduce space requirements, electronic dental records offer fantastic benefits. But they have to be implemented fully, with only historical records kept on paper.

Lessons Learned:

  • To save money and reduce duplication, eliminate paper forms.
  • Save space and money by transitioning to electronic.

Emmott, Larry (2010). Electronic Dental Records in Dentistry. Journal of the American College of Dentists, Winter.