A database program is the best way to manage your client record keeping and caseload. Beyond standardizing the way you collect data, organizing it, and retrieving it; a database can help you mine you data for stats and trends.
In this posting, I will discuss the various types of databases and some benefits and limitations particular to each.
Paper Record Keeping: You recognize the value of collecting info about your clients in forms and in notes. That is a good first step. Unfortunately there are significant limitations to what you are able to do with this data. Any kind of analysis must be done manually. If you want to computerize the information, someone has to enter it in, which is time consuming, duplicative, and costly.
The “do-it-yourself” database using Word or Excel: Storing your records on a computer is better than on paper. Keeping documents in word processing files, however, will limit your ability to organize, retrieve, analyze, and control your information. An Excel ‘list’ is better than using Word, but you are limited to a table view and constrained by the size, amount, and complexity of the data you can collect.
The desktop computer database: A database program such as MS Access is more powerful than a list you make in a word processing document, or even using a spreadsheet like Excel. You can set up forms, use tables, run queries, and generate reports. Desktop computer databases are also fairly inexpensive. Access (or a similar product) gives you almost unlimited customizability. The limitations with programs like Access are that they are hard to secure should multiple people need to use the same database. You would need someone who is an expert in Access to customize the program for you, maintain it properly, and you would need to give your staff lots of training. There is a strong possibility that you or your staff may accidentally crash your database. This can be disruptive and costly.
Profesional Databases: The best way to go is to use a professional specialized database application that is customized to handle record keeping and case management. The problem with many of these are that they are VERY expensive. You can shop around for quotes and compare. Fortunately, the CPSAP has developed a special database just for access workers. It is called “Web Enabled Student Tracking” or WEST. I will discuss WEST, which I had a hand in developing, in more depth in future blog postings.
Generally, the more powerful the database, the more options you have when it comes to collecting data, working with data, and security. A database application will enable you to store information in an organized way, find information easily by filtering and linking, analyze data, manage large amounts of information, share information with others, and allow multiple people to update data while maintaining database integrity (not messing up your files). Powerful programs can add layers of security to a database. These include password protection and access level controls, that allow specific users to modify or read only parts of the database you give them permission to work with. A professionally managed database will also have good archiving and backup.