Disaster Planning-Every One Take Cover

Neil Baum, MD

Neil Baum, MD, is Clinical Associate Professor of Urology, Tulane Medical School, New Orleans, LA, and author of Marketing Your Clinical Practice: Ethically, Effectively, and Economically, Jones Bartlett Publishers. He is also author of Social Media For The Healthcare Profession, Greenbranch Publishing, 2011. He blogs at

Seven years ago I experienced the wrath of Mother Nature when Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. My office experienced significant problems and I was not able to return to practice for nearly twelve weeks. I wrote a book, Disaster Planning For The Healthcare Professional (Jones and Bartlett, 2007) about that experience. The recent havoc caused by Hurricane Sandy impressed upon me once again that we are seldom ever secure from a disaster that can impact our medical practices. Also the complexities of computer technology, which we are all very dependent on, leaves us very vulnerable to loss of data and insertion of barriers to practicing medicine right after a disaster. 

After years of discussion about disaster recovery and business continuity best practices—with events such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the massive Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011 serving as exclamation marks—prevailing wisdom would dictate that businesses would adequately prepare for disruptions and ensure that IT systems are designed to avoid downtime, as well as security breaches. Here are a few suggestions you should consider when developing a disaster recovery/business continuity plan:

•               Have an emergency power source available. It's impossible to operate computers systems without electrical power. Many practices affected by Katrina and Sandy weren't physically damaged, but they couldn't operate for days because power remained off. Most practices, particularly small medical practices, have no generator or backup power supply available and no contingency plan for power outages. Unless the business can switch over to another data center, this renders the practice and its computer systems useless.

•               Ensure backup Internet connections exist. It's critical to have multiple Internet connections in place. This might include any combination of fiber, cable, T1 lines, satellite, and DSL. That way, if one or two connections fail, another is likely to work and provide baseline service. The ability to stay online can determine whether a business muddles through the disaster or stumbles.

•               Develop a communication plan as part of business continuity. Many practices have a practice continuity plan in place, but in a disaster, everything goes out the window. It's vital that staff, can reach one another. Cloud-based and hosted communications systems may prove particularly valuable. However, it also means maintaining a current phone directory and phone tree, as well as having a system in place to send group messages and alerts. It might also involve using GPS and social media tools to locate people.

§  Beware of the risk of data and security breaches. As businesses come back online after a disaster, it's crucial to guard against data breaches. "Executives must not let their guard down." Scammers, data thieves and others may use weak links in security and business practices to grab private data. This includes social security cards, credit card numbers and other records that may be sent to insurance companies, government entities and others. It's also important to remain vigilant and use all possible protections.

§  Lessons learned from Hurricane Isaac: We did everything on our checklist for on our disaster plan. However, we didn’t move the refrigerated medications out of the office. We were out of the office for five days and we had to discard all of the refrigerated medications. Neither the pharmaceutical companies nor my business disruption insurance replaced the medications. This important step has been added to our disaster plan checklist. A checklist is always an activity under construction. It’s never final.

Bottom Line: Disasters can impact any practice. It isn’t just hurricanes that can cause havoc with your practice. It’s also data theft, power outages, and fires that can cause loss of data and can bring your practice to a halt. Take time to develop a disaster plan and then update it regularly.