A simple guide to cloud-based software

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Lots of people are talking about and actively embracing cloud-based software, but what exactly is it and, perhaps more importantly, what are the benefits for therapists? These are two very common questions we get at the Private Practice Hub, so we have partnered up with Bob Bond of WriteUpp to give you this simple guide…
What is cloud-based software?
The best way to think of cloud-based software is like a utility or service. There’s nothing to install with no files or data residing on your computer. You simply open up your web browser, login to the site of your chosen service/software provider and do what you need to do.
Your service provider takes care of everything else like running servers, developing and delivering updates, security, backups and bug fixes. Leaving you free to concentrate on what you do best. If you follow the “utility” analogy, using cloud-based software is akin to plugging your kettle into a plug socket. When you do this, electricity flows and your kettle boils. You don’t have to worry about how to generate electricity or how it gets to your house. All the back-end hassle like buying fuel, generating power and maintaining the power station is handled by the utility company because that’s their core competence. That’s what they do, it’s their field of expertise and as a result you can be confident that when you plug in the kettle you’ll always be able to make a cup of tea!
How does cloud-based software work?
Feel free to skip this section if you’re not interested in the technicalities but it does help to understand the benefits!
Back in the day, if you wanted to use some software in your practice you would typically install it, run it and store your data on the hard drive. Great if you liked tinkering with computer, but less good if you wanted to get on with your job.
With cloud-based software this model is flipped on its head. You don’t install anything on your computer apart from a browser. Instead, the application software and your data reside in a secure data centre managed by your service provider. You connect to the data centre using your browser by entering a secure URL given to you by your service provider when you sign up for the service, so something like:
https://honeydesk.writeupp.com – this is just an example.
When you enter the URL into your browser, you are routed to the server that runs the service and a secure connection is created via HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol over SSL). Think of this as a secure pipe or cable directly connecting your computer to your service provider’s data centre. In the blink of an eye, this connection is made and the software that you want to use is visible in your browser. Most often you’ll start by seeing a login screen. You enter your username and password and this is encrypted and transmitted to the server where it is verified. If you entered the right details the first screen/page of the software will be sent from the server to your device with the appropriate data (appointments if it’s a diary screen, say). You might then book an appointment and this request gets sent from your browser to the server and so it goes on, back and forth between your browser and the server as you navigate around the software and perform different tasks.
If you’re really interested, keep an eye on what’s in the address bar as and when you’re navigating around your cloud-based software and you will see the URL changing as different pages are loaded.
Cloud computing has come of age in the last 2-3 years because broadband speeds have increased significantly and so the back and forthing described above now happens in milliseconds rather than seconds (or minutes for those of you that remember dial-up!). As a result, the experience of using cloud-based software has become fast, responsive and immersive.
What’s in it for me?
Flexibility, freedom and focus.
The single biggest benefit of cloud-based software is that it gives you the flexibility to work whenever and wherever you want, provided you have access to the Internet and a web browser. Hopefully the explanation above illustrates how this is possible but to re-cap, if you don’t need to have any software installed on your computer and your data is in the cloud (i.e. a remote data center), you have the freedom to work wherever you can hook up to the Internet.
As a result there’s:

  • No need to carry paperwork around with you if you need to catch up on some admin at home.
  • No need to import/export data on memory sticks.
  • No need to sync data between your home computer and clinic computer(s).
  • No need to install software on multiple computers.

Cloud-based software also frees you from many of the frustrations that come with packaged or installed software. Most notably:

  • Having to physically install software on your hard-drive
  • Managing software updates.
  • Taking care of your own backups/data storage.
  • Staying compatible with the latest version of Windows, MacOS or Linux.
  • Taking up valuable space on your hard drive.
  • Being dependent on a single computer – if it fails, what do you do?

Lastly, cloud-based software allows you to focus. I’ve done it myself, wasting hours of my day trying to sort something out on my computer when all I wanted to do was crack on and get my work done for the day.
Why should I embrace cloud-based practice management software?
Obviously there are a whole host of cloud-based practice management providers and most do similar things, albeit they have different nuances, attributes and prices. The following benefits are not provider-specific and instead focus on the merits of using a cloud-based system:

  • You have secure access to your client records anywhere, at any time, without the need to carry notes around with you, install software or sync data.
  • Your client records and clinical data are stored together in a secure, backed-up location.
  • You can book appointments quickly from any device without the need to carry around your diary knowing that it’s 100% up-to-date.
  • You can share information with your colleagues instantaneously. Why? Because all your data is stored in one secure physical location. So once you’ve written a note or booked an appointment, it’s instantly visible to your colleagues.
  • With your schedule and availability in the cloud and constantly up to date, you can allow your clients to book online (although, this differs between providers and is totally at your discretion).
  • Having your activity stored in one physical location means you can instantly get a handle on key information like monthly revenue, activity and DNA’s without having to resort to five bar gates or spreadsheets.

Things to consider?
Using a cloud-based system is not without its risks. However, having read this article you should now understand a bit more about the mechanics and also see where the potential pitfalls might be.

  • You need to be sure that your provider has a secure, reliable data center. More specifically, for clinicians in the EU (including the UK) this data centre must reside in the EU.
  • You need to understand how your data will be backed up.
  • You need to be confident that you will have access to a reliable Internet connection.
  • You should have a contingency plan in case you lose access to your practice management software. Anyone who infers that this won’t happen is likely misguided. Even the biggest tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon have occasional issues.
  • You need to be sure that you can get your data out of your provider’s data centre if you decide to switch provider, close down your business or retire.
  • You need to understand your responsibilities in relation to the protection of your clients’ data.
  • You need to recognise that your username and password are the single biggest point of weakness and writing them on a post-it note stuck to your computer or saving them in your browser’s password manager isn’t advisable.
  • You should take care when connecting to public WI-FI networks, particularly in large metropolitan locations, where sophisticated (and malicious users) can use freely available software to detect your login details if they aren’t encrypted.
  • You should be aware that cloud-based software is continually updated (which is often a good thing), but in certain circumstances this may mean changes to the software that a) you may not like, or b) may take some getting used to.

Is cloud-based software expensive?
Generally no.
Why? Because in a cloud-based service, one piece of source code serves all users. As a result, the costs of running a cloud-based business are typically spread among a large number of users. Bottom line: you get access to simple, high quality software at a very reasonable price.
Below are the key cost components of a cloud-based software business, excluding things like management and marketing costs:

  • Software development (headcount).
  • Software development (tools).
  • Quality control & testing tools.
  • Server infrastructure.
  • Air conditioning/heating.
  • Fire suppression equipment.
  • Electricity.
  • Lighting.
  • Secure email delivery.
  • SSL provision.
  • Technical support (headcount).
  • Technical support (tools).
  • Content writing.

I mention this because it’s important to understand that when you use a cloud-based service you are obviously paying for the right to use the software (the intellectual property), but you are also paying for a whole host of services that have recurrent costs, like air conditioning of the data centre, electricity consumption etc. Lastly, when you’re looking at pricing be sure to understand what is and isn’t included in the price.
Do I have to change my hardware?
No. For all the reasons described above all you need is a device that will run a modern browser like Google Chrome, Safari, Firefox or Microsoft Edge and an Internet connection. In addition, you might want to consider using the following add-ons:

  • Secure password manager like 1Password, mSecure or Lastpass to store your passwords in a central, secure location. These tools will generate long, complex passwords (not your cat’s name) that will be hard to crack should your device fall into the wrong hands.
  • VPN (Virtual Private Network) like SurfEasy or Zenmate. These tools will allow you to create a secure, encrypted connection if you frequently use public WI-FI networks in coffee shops and train stations.

What about data protection?
Obviously data protection laws vary between jurisdictions and to add further confusion into the mix, there is new EU legislation taking effect in May 2018 called GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) which the UK government have confirmed will be unaffected by Brexit.
Below, we will focus on a) legislation as it stands now and b) UK-specific legislation. If you are in any doubt about your responsibilities you should take a look at the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office) website and use the Online Self-Assessment or talk directly to ICO.
If you are using or plan to use a cloud-based system you will be required to comply with the Data Protection Act and self-register with ICO, which costs £35 for smaller organisations.
The 8 principles of the Data Protection Act are:

  1. Personal data shall be processed fairly and lawfully and, in particular, shall not be processed unless:
    • at least one of the conditions in Schedule 2 is met, and,
    • in the case of sensitive personal data, at least one of the conditions in Schedule 3 is also met.
  2. Personal data shall be obtained only for one or more specified and lawful purposes, and shall not be further processed in any manner incompatible with that purpose or those purposes.
  3. Personal data shall be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose or purposes for which they are processed.
  4. Personal data shall be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date.
  5. Personal data processed for any purpose or purposes shall not be kept for longer than is necessary for that purpose or those purposes.
  6. Personal data shall be processed in accordance with the rights of data subjects under this Act.
  7. Appropriate technical and organisational measures shall be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data.
  8. Personal data shall not be transferred to a country or territory outside the European Economic Area unless that country or territory ensures an adequate level of protection for the rights and freedoms of data subjects in relation to the processing of personal data.

Bottom line: If you record client information in a cloud-based system then it is your responsibility to make sure that the provider (or “Processor” in ICO speak) also upholds these principles. All credible and established providers are aware of DPA and will be able to provide adequate confirmation of their ability to uphold its principles if asked.
You can read the original article or find out more about WriteUpp and how it can help you manage your practice effortlessly.