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3/16/2011
05:06 PM
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Time To Revisit Disaster Planning

Japan's tragedy reminds us of why disaster recovery planning is so critical for healthcare data.

The devastation and climbing death toll in the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami last week is excruciating to comprehend. Entire communities and families were swept away by the floods. And while the scope of Japan's tragedy is extreme, it still gives reason for those in the U.S. and elsewhere to reassess disaster planning, including retrieving medical data.

The tsunami destroyed everything in its path, and while most Japanese healthcare providers still tend to keep medical information on paper, any health facility's computers would've been ruined last week, too.

In the U.S., strategies for safeguarding patient data from devastating earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, fires, or other natural or manmade disasters should also be reevaluated at this time.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina a few years ago, thousands of people suddenly found themselves homeless, seeking refuge in public shelters and often being relocated to other cities and states. Paper health records were destroyed, and survivors seeking medical treatment in the aftermath of the hurricane were often forced to rely on memory to reconstruct their and loved ones' medical histories, medication lists, drug allergies, immunization history, and other important information.

In the weeks following Katrina, a group of experts from private and public health organizations and technology companies created KatrinaHealth.org, a secure Web portal that allowed health providers to securely access online pharmacy records from the previous 90 days for approximately 1 million Gulf region evacuees. That also helped many patients resume taking life-saving medications and helped doctors avoid prescribing drugs that might interfere with patients' other treatments.

As thousands of U.S. doctor practices and hospitals just begin to digitize patient information, they need to pay close attention to how that data is backed up and can be accessed if disaster strikes.

While most major hospitals hopefully have well thought out disaster recovery and business continuity plans that involve patient data being replicated and backed up at a remote facility or via a cloud services provider, smaller healthcare providers just making the leap to e-health records (especially those using on-site systems) need to remember that those digitized records are just as vulnerable to loss as paper charts if they're not adequately protected.

Web-based hosted EMRs and other cloud-based services are alternatives for smaller healthcare providers to consider if they're not confident they'd have the in-house technology manpower to execute a data recovery plan during a time of desperation.

So, while U.S. doctors and hospitals make plans to roll out e-health records systems and take advantage of the federal government's meaningful use financial subsidy programs, they also need to remember that having solid disaster recovery strategies in place are just as meaningful.

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