Practice code debt: What veterinary practices can learn from software development

Jan 11, 2017 | Managing With Metrics

I spend a fair share of time with software developers thinking about what we’re looking to accomplish on the business side and working with them to deliver it. Software developers have a helpful concept called Technical Debt. You can search for “technical debt” on Wikipedia. Technical debt is defined as:

“a concept in programming that reflects the extra development work that arises when [software] code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution”

Descriptions of technical debt often compare it to financial debt. The more debt you take on the more interest you pay and the longer it takes you to get out of debt.

I’ve found the concept of Technical Debt useful in my everyday life and in the building of our business. I know, with almost complete certainty, that if we take a shortcut or easy path, there’s likely going to be a cost to that decision in the future. This doesn’t necessarily stop me from choosing the expedient path – it just makes me better at thinking about the potential cost of my decision ahead of time.

I think this is a lovely and universal concept with applicability all over the place. Take the short way and there’s a price to pay.

Our team has also found evidence of the technical debt concept in veterinary practices. We experience it almost every day. We call it Practice Code Debt. Mirroring the definition of technical debt, think of Practice Code Debt as

“a concept in veterinary practice management that reflects the extra work that arises when practice management codes, that are easy to implement in the short run, are used instead of applying the best overall solution.”

This applies to all code types but for this article I’m going to stick with transaction codes. I’m sure that Practice Code Debt is real but I wanted to learn more so I did three things:

What do you think?

I started anecdotally asking Practice Owners and Managers the following question:

“How many of you, when you create a new transaction code in your practice management system take the time to inactivate codes that you’re no longer using?”

If you have responsibility for the codes in your practice think about it. What’s your answer?

Most people creating new codes seem to give little thought to the codes they already have in their system. Creating new codes is easy. But I think maybe we’re hard-wired to resist inactivating codes.

I’m clearly hard-wired to resist getting rid of shirts. I’ll convince myself that I need a new shirt…but I don’t get rid of old shirts. The next thing you know I’m standing in my closet, paralyzed by too many shirts, wondering which one to wear, wondering when I last wore a specific shirt…it takes up valuable time.

There are consequences to buying a shirt and not making room for it in your closet. There are consequences to creating new codes without inactivating codes you no longer intend to use.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.
This post is Part 1 of a series entitled “Practice Code Debt: What veterinary practices can learn from software development”, originally published in the January issue of Patterson Veterinary Insight magazine.

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