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Facing the realities of the electronic age

July 1, 2007
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Despite its staff's initial trepidation, Sundown M Ranch pushes forward with implementing an electronic clinical record system

Sundown M Ranch soon will celebrate its 40th anniversary. The Selah, Washington-based chemical dependency treatment center has had its share of major challenges during the past four decades. But perhaps nothing has tested its mettle more than its decision two years ago to move from a paper-based to an electronic administrative and operational system.

The process had its growing pains. At the time Sundown M Ranch decided to transition to electronic clinical records, the software vendor it had been using for intake/scheduling and accounts receivable was being purchased by another firm. Sundown M Ranch used the opportunity to consider other software vendors' products. Several staffers admitted that they dreaded the thought of having to learn yet another IT system. Although sympathetic of the staff's concerns, senior managers reminded Sundown M Ranch's 170 employees that they couldn't remain competitive and efficiently serve patients' needs if they turned their backs on the electronic age.

With that backdrop, CEO Scott Munson and Controller Denise Junt attended trade shows in Chicago and San Antonio and met with a half-dozen vendors. “It wasn't easy to find one that truly comprehends the demands on a behavioral health facility that treats more than 2,700 patients a year,” recalls Munson. “We're primarily a residential adult and adolescent treatment facility, and it's important to us that our software vendor completely understands our scheduling, reservation, and intake needs.”

Munson formed an interdepartmental committee that included several end-users to make sure staff's specific needs would be addressed. The group met several times to review promotional materials and provide follow-up questions for the vendors.

In the end, networking did the trick. One of Munson's colleagues recommended a vendor with dozens of behavioral health clients. This vendor was one of two asked to conduct a live demonstration for Sundown M Ranch executives, who ultimately chose the recommended vendor (Sigmund Software, LLC). Munson says that the live demonstrations proved critical in making the final decision.

As a result of implementing the new software, Sundown M Ranch now can electronically capture invaluable patient demographic information and use that data in its various substance abuse treatment programs. “We used to spend a considerable amount of time accumulating that kind of information,” Munson says. The software fully computerizes the case record from admission to discharge, including assessments, individual and group progress notes, and treatment plans.

While Sundown M Ranch's intake process isn't quicker, there are much more reliable data, notes Munson. The software has reduced the time to conduct treatment planning and record keeping in some instances. “Although we don't have hard, bottom-line information yet, we know that our data are now consistently organized and legible,” he says. “From a clinical supervision standpoint, our efficiency has increased amazingly.

But has staff anxiety over the transition been reduced? For the most part, Munson says, the staff has become comfortable with the new system. “We needed to provide the gamut of training, as some of our staff had never worked with computers before,” he notes. “But we started that training a year before the system was implemented, and the vendor provided six to eight weeks of hands-on training as well.

“Knowing that our experience with computers varied considerably, we decided to put the workstation out for counselors nine months prior to the implementation of the software,” Munson adds. Sundown M Ranch also formed a committee of high-functioning users from each department, who were instrumental in modifying and customizing the software. “In the end,” Munson concludes, “we created a tool that was able to function smoothly within our current system and utilize language familiar to our staff.”

Michael Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer. For more information about Sundown M Ranch, visit