DISASTER: Is your practice prepared?

A disaster can take on any number of forms, including weather-related incidents such as storms or floods, or other natural causes such as hurricanes or earthquakes; an act of human violence, such as stolen computers; or technology failures, including faulty hardware and more.

Mar 1st, 2006

WRITTEN BY Dianna Borries

A disaster can take on any number of forms, including weather-related incidents such as storms or floods, or other natural causes such as hurricanes or earthquakes; an act of human violence, such as stolen computers; or technology failures, including faulty hardware and more. It can be impossible to predict when a disaster will strike, resulting in loss and destruction for those who are least prepared.

Emergency calls for data recovery consistently come from customers who have experienced disasters of all kinds. While experiencing a disaster can be devastating for those involved, the dental practices that will inevitably suffer the most from a disaster are the ones that do not have solid backup systems. These offices place themselves in poor positions to get their operations running again quickly. Most dentists do not realize they do not have good backup systems until it is too late. The following tips detail important considerations to think about before a disaster strikes your practice - steps I recommend to all practices that electronically store patient data.

Where to look for help

If your office experiences a disaster and you’re unsure how to recover data, first call your hardware provider for guidance. Many times a hardware provider can recover data, but it is important to call right away. You will need to provide your hardware provider with any remaining records and any backup tapes, even if they are old or of questionable status. In addition, the hardware provider might need your computer hard drive to search for lost data. The more information you can provide, the better your chances of complete data recovery.

You should also contact your practice-management software provider for additional assistance in recovering lost data. The software provider can work with your hardware provider to review all available remaining electronic and paper records to reconstruct the lost data. Some top-level support specialists will assist customers in the data recovery process. In some cases, we can use printed financial reports and audit trails to at least partially retrieve lost data. If we are able to recover any electronic data, we send that data to the customer in a file that can be easily copied onto the server.

In one case, the Patterson support team was able to gather portions of the schedule from other computers in the office, and once we received the faulty hard drive along with all of the old backup tapes from the office, we were able to piece together the data and reconstruct several months of vital information. The practice was able to get back running quickly and efficiently with minimal loss of information.

What to think about

If an office staff concludes that backup data cannot be salvaged, there are two main concerns: patient balances and scheduling.

To address patient balances - essentially, who owes what - it might be necessary to go back to paper copies to retrieve information. In some cases, an accountant might be able to provide financial information to recreate records. If a practice submits electronic statements through us, we can access the last batch of statements and provide information on those patient accounts. If patients are still able to be seen, then you will need to know who is on the schedule. Rebuilding your schedule can be one of the most difficult recovery tasks. We can review data logs and information on different computers in an office to at least partially reconstruct the schedule. Offices we have helped have sent letters to patients informing them of what happened and asking them to call the office if they had upcoming appointments.

What to ask yourself

In most cases, disasters can be averted if practices have good backup systems. Ask yourself these questions to ensure you have the right disaster-recovery system:

Do we have backup tapes? First, we recommend that every office has one backup tape or external hard drive for each day the practice is open. Therefore, if you are open Monday through Friday, you should have five daily tapes. We also recommend rotating between two tapes for backup at the end of each month. Finally, we recommend one backup tape to secure your records at the end of the year.

Are we running our backup program correctly? A common mistake offices make is to back up data while the software is still running. Most backup software programs will not copy or back up files that are in use. Therefore, it is smart to fully exit all programs, including shutting down the server engine, before attempting to back up your files. Also, be sure that you back up more than just files. Images are also important. If you take digital X-rays or camera images, include those folders in the backup.

Have we checked our backup tapes? Just because you’ve made a backup doesn’t mean the data on the tape is good or recoverable. Your hardware provider should check your backup tapes periodically to ensure that they contain the information you need. Although some providers charge an extra fee to verify backup tapes, it’s one of the wisest investments you can make to ensure that your practice is safeguarded. If you’re not certain that you have good backup tapes, however, physically taking your server with you in an emergency is a last-resort solution.

Do we store backup tapes off-site? If you don’t already, you should. Storing your backup tapes off-site at a fireproof, secure location protects your data from natural disasters and crime.

In one worst-case scenario, we received a call from an office that had its computers stolen. Unfortunately, we were not able to help them recover their data because the backup tapes that had been stored in the office were stolen with the computers. Even though the practice had backup tapes, they lost everything because the backup tapes were stored on-site.

In a separate case, we assisted a practice recovering from Hurricane Katrina. They also had backup tapes stored on-site and had lost everything because they had not taken the backup tapes from the office before the hurricane hit. In this case, the practice was fortunate. Although the backup tapes had been destroyed, we were able to access an old data file that we had archived at our support center last year. This information enabled the practice to rebuild without completely starting over.

Your life is the most important consideration during a disaster. After the safety of your staff and patients has been secured, only then should you look to secure your office. In addition, remember that your equipment can be replaced, but data cannot. Therefore, it is essential to have a backup procedure (the responsibilities for making the backup tapes and storing them in a safe location off-site) before a disaster and a plan to respond to an emergency.

The Patterson support team offers technical support and knowledge of your technology equipment and software whenever you have questions or challenges. Customers may call before a disaster strikes for assistance in creating a disaster recovery plan. In addition, Patterson has contributed EagleSoft specific information on emergency planning for the ADA HIPAA Security Kit (item J85, available online at www.ada.org).

More in Scheduling