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Hurricane Season Threatens Healthcare Disaster Recovery Plans

Hurricane season threatens healthcare organizations as nearly half of providers report that they lack a comprehensive disaster recovery plan.

disaster recovery plan

Source: Thinkstock

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

- Nearly 50 percent of healthcare organizations have doubts in their disaster recovery solutions as hurricane season begins to threaten the US, according to a DrFirst survey.

Hurricane Florence is about to make landfall on the East Coast and many healthcare organizations may be unable to access digital tools or communicate information effectively. Lack of disaster recovery planning for physical disasters can leave healthcare organizations without access to EHRs and applications for weeks.

“These survey results are critical for addressing potential safety issues that affect the health and lives of millions of Americans who are increasingly subject to hurricanes, wildfires, and floods as well as other man-made disasters,” said the survey.  

The survey found that just over half of healthcare providers believe that their disaster recovery solution is comprehensive enough to recover quickly from events within the facility and in the community. That leaves nearly half of organizations vulnerable to unrecoverable outages in the face of powerful storms.

Specialty care facilities such as cardiologists and endocrinologists are especially behind in disaster recovery implementation with only 29 percent reporting that they have a comprehensive disaster recovery plan in place.

“The fact that almost 70 percent of the surveyed healthcare providers have been affected by more than two disasters in the last 5 years should be a major wake-up call for the healthcare industry,” DrFirst President G. Cameron Deemer said in a statement. “As we learned in the aftermath of major disasters such as Hurricanes Maria and Harvey, natural disasters lead to surging demands for acute and emergency care, especially from the most vulnerable patients who may have been displaced from their homes without medications or critical medical supplies, like oxygen or diabetic testing equipment. We must take measures now to address the critical gaps impacting patient care and safety, such as communication challenges and ready-access to medical records and specialty care providers.”

A comprehensive data recovery solution includes both backup and disaster recovery as well as frequent testing. Organizations that backup their data without planning for disaster recovery wont’s lose their data, but they will not be able to access their when the disaster occurs.

A tested data recovery solution is what will get organizations backup and running with the least amount of latency. Disaster recovery solutions should also be tested frequently with feedback from end-users. Frequent successful tests give IT staff the confidence to switch over to their recovered environment because they already know that it works the way it needs to.

The survey also discovered the widespread lack of disaster recovery planning for communication. Many organizations are dependent on disaster communication methods that are not HIPAA compliant. These methods are used to communicate protected health information (PHI) among medical teams, pharmacies, and patients.

One-third of healthcare professionals said that phone is their main means of communication during disasters with secure messaging and email as the other top two choices of communication.

However over a quarter of respondents admitted to using unsecured text messaging to reach hospitals immediately after being affected by a disaster. Twenty-two percent of clinicians reported using unsecure text messaging to reach patients and their families.

Although it’s important to communicate with patients during disasters, CMS states that patient health information is “only permissible through a secure messaging platform that provides message encryption. Encryption is also required when emailing patient health information.”

“Forty-four percent of hospital-based respondents said that secure, HIPAA-compliant medical messaging is a key requirement of a disaster preparedness plan,” said the survey. “In fact, hospital-based respondents indicated that the only requirements more important than secure messaging were the installation of backup generators in case of power outages (56 percent) and the ordering and maintaining of extra inventory of supplies and medications (52 percent). Yet, specialty providers place the need for including secure messaging at the very bottom of their disaster planning requirements (0 percent).”

With hurricane season approaching, backup and disaster recovery becomes a top priority for healthcare organizations, especially those in areas of the country that experience a high volume of powerful storms.

Organizations should take steps to develop a comprehensive and tested disaster recovery plan and establish a HIPAA-compliant way to for patients and clinicians to communicate during a disaster.

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