By Jeremy M. Albert, DMD, MS
In the ever-evolving world of technology in our orthodontic practice, there is a relatively archaic form of communication that we still accept (or with which we are stuck?) – the fax. Fax machines were an obvious improvement to snail-mailing documents for patient communication, and their infiltration into offices since becoming mainstream in the late 70s-early 80s has made it essential to maintain a fax number, despite the prevalence of email.
I have to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with faxes in my office. I love the simplicity of sending a fax – being able to quickly handwrite a progress form or extraction request and fax it to a dental office. (I know I could easily create all correspondence with merge documents, but I still like the personal touch of at least some handwritten scrawl on each letter.) But when I’m on the receiving end of a fax in my ‘paperless’ office, it seems like a hassle to get it into my patient files – scanning it or noting it in the computer and filing it in a paper chart. Faxes are simple to send out, but they complicate things in a paperless office.
In my office, we use email communication with any dental office that will accept it. However, at my last polling of local dental offices, the vast majority still prefer to receive correspondence via either fax or snail mail. Only a select few have systems in place to accept email for all correspondence (referrals, treatment letters, photos, and x-rays). In an effort to minimize postage costs, we switched to faxing most documents over 5 years ago (although photos and x-rays still must be mailed if email is not available). So we remain stuck with outdated fax technology in a world of instant email communication and digital storage simply because the offices we work with still cling to their fax machines.
Fortunately there are options available to blend the fax with digital storage. The simplest solution involves manpower and a scanner. Every digitally received fax is printed out and re-digitized via a scanner into the patient’s digital file. The ridiculousness of this makes me laugh (digital to paper to digital) but this is where we and many other ‘paperless’ orthodontic offices are right now.
Online fax services or internet faxes are another option to consider, and there are a plethora of vendors offering this service. Essentially, online faxing involves sending an email that is converted to a fax and then forwarded to the desired fax number. Faxes can also be received by these services and converted to email. Vendors charge a monthly fee ($5-15 monthly), usage limits may apply, and additional hardware must be added to existing fax lines. One possible downside to this option is that some services assign a new fax number which may not be practical for practices with an existing, long-time fax number. Some but not all vendors do allow you to use your existing fax number.
The next level of digital faxing is the use of an on-site fax server to manage incoming faxes, while maintaining a normal fax machine for outgoing faxes. Software and modem costs range from $500-1200, and connection to an existing office computer is required. This option requires no monthly fees after installation. Incoming faxes are received by the server, accessed via the computer, and are either stored on your network or automatically forwarded to an email address. Faxes can be saved in PDF or other common graphic formats for viewing.
Lastly, an all-in-one fax server option is also available that can manage incoming faxes without an associated computer. Costs range from $1500-5000 but no subsequent monthly fees are required. Like the previous option, these all-in-one fax servers convert faxes to PDF or other formats that can be stored on the network or forwarded to email.
While there is no single solution to faxing in our digital world (and it appears we may be stuck with it at least for now), at least there are several options available for those of us who want to streamline it. The best solution for you will be determined by practitioner preference, existing office computer architecture, and office budget. Good luck in ‘getting your fax straight’!