This content is part of the Essential Guide: Essential guide to business continuity and disaster recovery plans

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Why every hospital needs a natural disaster recovery plan

No healthcare organization is immune to natural disasters, which is why it is important to be prepared before calamity strikes, rather than trying to pick up the pieces afterward.

In the first week of September 2018, news of a potentially destructive Category 4 hurricane that was forecast to make landfall on the coast of the Carolinas sent many of the hospitals and medical practices in both states rushing to dust off their disaster recovery and business continuity plans in preparation for it. Evacuation drills were reviewed and many other operating procedures were rehearsed and evaluated. But most of all, health IT systems were being tested and reassessed for their natural disaster recovery readiness. Most healthcare groups focused on a few aspects of their IT to ensure they were prepared for whatever outcome the storm had in store for them.

In any given hurricane season, healthcare organizations in areas that are affected by these natural disasters are no strangers to preparing for power outages, and potential structural damage from flooding, high winds or downed trees. Some of the prep work by their IT departments can include moving IT equipment off the ground or out of the basement to testing system failovers and backups. During Hurricane Florence, many healthcare organizations in the Carolinas quickly came to realize the importance of having a natural disaster recovery plan. Those who didn't now face significant obstacles to get back to the business of patient care.

The dependence on EHRs is significantly greater today than it was few decades ago, when paper charts could be used if computers' systems went offline. Providers now need to review electronic documentation that is collected and managed within their EHR systems to care for patients. Operating without these record systems can limit their ability to provide patient care since they are not able to review patient information such as medical history, medication lists and previous lab results. With this heavy reliance on technology and infrastructure, the need for IT to ensure its availability during or right after a natural disaster becomes critical.

How is natural disaster recovery different from disaster recovery?

While every healthcare organization should have a disaster recovery plan, it is a good idea to have a natural disaster recovery plan as well. According to SearchDisasterRecovery, a sister site of SearchHealthIT, natural disaster recovery requires its own type of planning because the scenarios that may result can have unpredictable circumstances that differ from those caused by cybercrime or human error. Healthcare organizations in areas that are prone to certain types of natural disasters should be sure to implement that type of disaster into their DR plan.

There were also widespread outages after Hurricane Florence moved away from the Carolinas that left even well-prepared practices unable to use their systems. For example, internet outages affected those using cloud-based EHRs in rural areas that may not have had redundant internet connections due to limited access.

For many healthcare organizations, the biggest question during a natural disaster is around when they will be able to recover from any system outages. Once a storm passes, many residents in hurricane-affected areas are likely to use healthcare services either as a result of the storm or for their regular follow-ups. IT has the responsibility of determining the estimated time required to get all systems back online in the event some of the equipment has been damaged and requires replacement. From the IT perspective, off-site data centers that contain the practice's or hospital's backups can be used temporarily to access records while their main systems are being repaired.

The growing concerns around the possible increase in strength of hurricanes is forcing many to focus on their natural disaster recovery and business continuity plans in the event of another storm like Hurricane Florence. Some in IT are taking these events as an opportunity to accelerate their transition to the cloud while others focus on ensuring their DR plans are up to date and fully tested. But no matter what the nature of the environment is, performing recovery drills and reevaluating their natural disaster recovery plans is the best way to know for sure a healthcare organization is prepared for what the next storm may bring to them.

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