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Selecting the right computer hardware

By Shardul Mehta

Selecting the right computer hardware can be critical to the success and efficiency of your practice. Fortunately, computer prices are rock bottom nowadays – you can get one for as little as $300. But does this mean you should simply run out to the nearest electronics or office store and snatch up the cheapest one available?

No, of course not. You need to consider the needs of your office. Do you need just one computer or a network of computers? How about a server? Who is going to be printing? What are you going to be printing? Paper claims? Documents? Both?

Some practices mistakenly focus on “compatibility with our billing software” as the determining factor. Now, obviously, the hardware should be able to run your billing software. However, if you’re using a Windows-based system (and practically 90 percent of billing systems out there run on Windows), odds are just about any computer system will be able to support it. There are a few things to look out for, though, which I will discuss in the course of this article.

Having said this, the first place to start is your software vendor. Find out if they can supply you with the computer hardware – and if they can, then get a quote – but if not, then at least ask for their recommendations. You don’t necessarily need a full-fledged proposal. A verbal quote or one page fax should suffice. Here’s what we typically recommend to our clients:

Windows XP Professional. Yes, Professional, not Home Edition. The latter is more suitable for home users, because it’s stuffed with software to play music, games, multimedia, etc., and has been constructed with hardware to support these activities. On the other hand, Windows XP Professional is more geared for business use, and so the hardware that makes up the computer is more suitable to run business applications, such as your billing or practice management software. In addition, Windows XP Professional can better support a computer network. You may not find a significant difference in the price of the two systems, so it’s really a question of what you’re getting for your dollars.

At least 512MB of memory. Remember: it’s not just the speed of the processor, but the amount of memory that can affect the performance of your computer. For the things you need to do, there’s little difference between a Pentium 4 processor with 3.2GHz versus 3.8GHz (except maybe in price), but there is a significant difference between a computer with 512MB of memory versus one with 1GB. The better the performance of your computer, the more productive your staff will be, because they’ll be able to get their work done more quickly. With memory available so cheaply, why not get a system with better performance?

Three years warranty, including parts and on-site labor. Now, this will definitely increase the cost of the computer, but it’s a smart way to protect your investment for the long haul. The odds of something going wrong in the first year of use is very low, so the 1-year warranty doesn’t cut it. So what happens if something goes wrong in the 3rd year? Non-warranty repairs can be so expensive, you’ll probably be better off buying a new computer. Why make another $500 to $1,500 investment in less than three years, when you can insure the computer’s performance for maybe just $100 to $200 more?

In addition, make sure the warranty includes “parts + on-site labor.” This means the vendor or manufacturer is obligated to send a technician to your site to fix the broken part. Otherwise, you have to either take it to an authorized service center yourself, or mail it in. For a busy practice that cannot afford downtime, these aren’t practical options.

Notice I didn’t discuss the hard drive. That’s because most computers now come with 40 or more GB of hard disk space. 40GB, 60GB, 80GB85 it’s not going to make a huge difference (unless we’re talking about a server, which I do later).

Next step is to determine how many computers your office will need, and whether you need a server.

Small Office

If you have a small office requiring just one or two computers, it’s possible simply to have the two computers directly connected to each other without requiring a server. We usually recommend a server for offices with at least three computers. However, keep in mind that if your billing or practice management software require its database to run on its own server, then you have no choice but to get a server.

Another consideration is the printer. We always recommend getting a laser printer, especially if you’re printing paper claims. The print jobs are faster, and your staff will waste less time. If you’re billing a high enough volume of paper claims, then you may want to consider getting a printer with two trays. Stack paper claims on one tray, and blank sheets on the other. This way you’re not forced to keep switching paper types. Your billing software should allow you to choose to which tray to send any print job, or it should be configured to automatically send a job to the appropriate tray.

Computer Network

If you have a large office with multiple users, or even if you have a small office, but need three or more computers, you should get a server. Be sure each computer you get has a network card – this is the only way it can physically be attached to the network.

Most practices can get away with using Windows Small Business Server 2003 Standard Edition. You need the server to do two simple tasks: run your network and house your database. Getting the Premium Edition of Small Business Server, or even the full scale Windows 2000 Server operating system is unnecessary, considering these rather modest needs.

Make sure your server has enough hard disk space. This will be largely driven by the size of your database and how fast you expect it to grow. Talk to your software vendor about this.

The amount of memory depends on the needs of your database and the number of users on your network. For a small office of three to four users, 1MB may be enough. Larger networks need to look at getting at least 2MB. Again, talk to your software vendor.

Picture all your computers arranged in a circle, and each one connected to a small device that sits in the center of the circle, like a hub and spoke model. That small device is the switch. A switch enables your network to perform more efficiently.

A network printer is one connected directly to the network – that is, to the network switch – as opposed to a local printer that connects via a parallel, serial or USB cable to a computer.

Imagine you’re working after office hours, and the rest of the staff has gone home. You need to print your work. If you have a local printer, you will necessarily have to turn on the computer to which the printer is attached before you can print. If you have a network printer, you can go ahead and print your work even though all the other computers may be switched off.

A good rule of thumb is, if you have more than three computers, consider getting a network printer.

The number of printers you will need depends on several factors, including the number of users who will be submitting print jobs, and the layout of your office. (If you have two floors, then it may be advantageous to have at least one printer on each floor.)

Make sure you have a reliable, robust and consistent data backup process. I cannot stress this enough. And I’m not just talking about having a tape backup, Zip drive, or CD writer. Make sure someone on the staff is responsible for performing the data backup. If no one is available, look into remote data backup. There is nothing worse than having a database crash, and then finding out your data hasn’t been backed up for over a month, because the staff person has either been too busy or simply didn’t fully understand how to use the backup system.

Backup regularly, and make multiple copies. The larger your database, the more often you should be backing up your data. Keep at least one copy off-site. Data backups are useless if you keep them all in your office and your building either burns down or is flooded.

Of course, there can be much more involved in determining hardware requirements. What about mobile computing? Handhelds? Remote computing? These will have to be topics for another article. However, the tips provided here should be enough to get you started in selecting the right hardware for your office.

Shardul Mehta leads marketing & business development efforts at InfoQuest Systems, Inc., providers of medical billing solutions, including medical billing software, medical practice management software, HIPAA compliant solutions, and billing services.

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