EHR disaster prep should be a priority, not an afterthought

One of the first announcements our regional power company made after vicious storms swept through the Washington, D.C., region last weekend was that power had been restored to local hospitals. Now, the company said, it could turn to the restoration of electricity to homes and businesses.

Of course the restoration of power to hospitals and other vital entities should be a priority. But hospitals always have an obligation to engage in disaster planning, and that includes protection of their electronic health records and other patient records.

EHRs generally are protected during disasters, as such data is stored both on a hospital's emergency power system and at a backup offsite storage location. But what happens to the data if those options also are knocked out?

That's exactly what happened to hospitals in Joplin, Mo., which was hit with a trifecta of disasters--a blizzard, a flood, and multiple tornadoes, including one F5--in 2011. The devastation was so pervasive that people couldn't even communicate with each other, according to Dave Dillon, vice president of media relations for the Missouri Hospital Association.

"Redundant systems were in place in Joplin, however, most of the infrastructure supporting these systems was destroyed," Dillon told FierceEMR. The Association recently issued a report on lessons learned during the disasters.

While EHRs should be part of disaster planning and preparation, a lot of people don't test their EHR offsite storage to see if they can retrieve the patient information, Robert Hunn, president and CEO of Mill Valley, Calif.-based hospital safety consulting company Hospital Safety by Design, told FierceEMR.

"People don't test the integrity of the system," he said. "It doesn't matter if the data is in the cloud or in a bank of computers somewhere; you should be able to retrieve the data, no matter how it's stored."

Dillon said the lesson he learned was to expect the unexpected. He said hospitals should have important patient forms both in electronic and paper form located throughout the facility for on-demand access in case of IT or power failures.

"Train to the worse possible situation and expect it to be even worse," he said. - Marla