Disaster planning and response: How hospital IT teams can maintain continuity amid chaos

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from FierceHealthcare's latest eBook, "HOSPITAL DISASTER RECOVERY." Click here to download the free report.

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In the midst of disaster, hospitals often serve as a refuge, a place of comfort for those in need of care or shelter. But even hospitals aren't immune to chaos, as electronic health record systems, network connections and even whole power grids can be rendered useless in the blink of an eye.

Response to and recovery from IT outages are critical, as UC Irvine Health CIO Charles Podesta knows all too well. When he was CIO at the University of (Burlington) Vermont Medical Center, the 562-bed hospital suffered a power outage that left its EHR system out of commission for nearly half a day.

A Domino Effect

It started with a squirrel getting blown up on a transformer and ended with a loss of power to electrical and mechanical equipment. But things got worse: The uninterruptible power supply didn't kick in and the failover software didn't activate.

But business continuity planning saved the day. As they'd been trained to do, staffers reverted back to using paper records during the outage.

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"We went into [our EHR implementation] with the assumption that there would be downtime at some point," he says. "We had worked quite a bit with the users on what they would do. We didn't think it would be that soon, but we had gone through all the training."

Clinicians, for instance, had order sheets and prescription pads at the ready. Nurses had downtime folders in hand. 

A Missed Opportunity

However, while the hospital did have failover systems in place, Podesta admits they weren't tested the way they should have been--in a live environment.

"We just tested some of the software to see if it would cut over in the middle of the night, things like that," Podesta says. "We should have done a lot more testing."

Podesta says he won't let the ghosts of UVMC haunt him at UC Irvine--he's applying the lessons he learned in the wake of that outage at his new facility. That includes out-of-state data centers in the event of a natural disaster, such as an earthquake. And Podesta and his team are stratifying the risks of UC Irvine's applications.

To read more about how to weather an IT outage while maintaining high-quality patient care--plus hear from healthcare leaders about what to do before, during and after a disaster--download FierceHealthcare's latest free eBook: HOSPITAL DISASTER RECOVERY.