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How Much to Spend?

November 1, 2006
by Michael Ward
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Despite what many think, a disaster plan doesn't have to cost a million dollars.

Anderson Hospital is a not-for-profit, 135-bed, acute-care medical center located in Maryville, Ill. The hospital offers a full range of advanced healthcare services — from a state-of-the-art obstetrics unit, called the Pavilion for Women, to emergency services that treated more than 33,000 people last year.

More than 220 physicians work with Anderson Hospital to meet the medical needs of the communities we serve, and this medical staff covers nearly 40 specialties. Anderson isn't one of the biggest hospitals in the country, but we pride ourselves on providing the most modern equipment and technologies to better diagnose and treat disease, as well as promote health.

In order to keep the hospital running smoothly, it's my job to manage the IT systems that organize the information and processes that are happening at the hospital every day. As a medical institution, HIPAA security regulations have a huge impact on how the hospital operates, and the need to comply with these regulations forces our IT department to develop a means by which we can track, store and maintain hospital and patient data.

In the case of a disaster, we need a way to quickly access up-to-date information about the patients that are in the hospital receiving treatment. Because the needs of our patients are our first priority, it is a necessity that we have on hand every piece of information the hospital staff needs to do their jobs.

Necessity breeds invention

Two years ago, we were faced with a crisis every hospital IT staff fears. The hospital information system (HIS) crashed, not once, but three times over the course of one month. During each crash, the HIS was down for 48-72 hours, leaving hospital staff without access to critical patient information.

The problem was found not to be the HIS itself, but the storage area network (SAN) hardware, and hospital administrators wanted assurance that they would never be stuck without immediate and full access to patient-critical information ever again. We needed to make changes to our disaster preparedness plan, and fast.

As IS (information systems) director, I was tasked with finding and implementing these changes. I began researching several disaster recovery software solutions, but soon realized a not-for-profit hospital like ours would not be able to afford the $100,000 price tags that came with these stand-alone solutions. We were going to have to create our own low-cost solution.

A brainstorming session with the IT staff revealed a simple solution: we turned to a scripting tool that we had already been using with our HIS for three years.

This tool, Boston WorkStation from Boston Software System (Sherborn, Mass.), is a workflow automation and integration technology. It allows healthcare organizations like Anderson Hospital to dynamically respond to changing business requirements by automating common tasks, creating complex processes, automating interaction with Web sites, or integrating new applications, systems and devices.

Using Boston WorkStation, we were able to develop a script to capture a snapshot of critical information every two hours from various parts of the HIS, including bed census, pain management, labs, schedules, OR, pharmacy, medication administration and staff schedules. The script then organized this information into a report, which goes to a specially designated computer in the appropriate hospital department.

We have since set up 10 disaster recovery computer stations throughout the hospital. Each of these computers has its own printer and functions independently of the hospital network so it will not be affected in the event of a network failure.

The reports from these stations are in Adobe Acrobat files so hospital personnel are able to view and print critical information in the exact form they are used to seeing it.

In designing this script, we were able to determine the best solution for our needs at Anderson Hospital. For example, while the IT staff could have designed the system to be checked more often, they found that a report every two hours allows them to track the majority of changes made to the HIS, ensuring recently updated information in the event of a disaster.

Conserving cash

In looking at all the solutions we could have purchased to provide redundant access to the data, I'd say we saved more than $95,000 by using a scripting tool to develop our disaster recovery solution. At first, this project seemed too big and time-consuming for our department, but this simple solution has allowed us to maximize our resources to develop a disaster recovery solution we can really depend on.

The IT department now regularly reviews our preparedness to find what enhancements we must make. It seems we think of something new at every meeting. We now know that we can manipulate the tools we have in place to be prepared for any situation.

The next project that we are undertaking is electronically sending generated reports to one of our remote sites, so staff will have access to critical information in the event of a natural disaster. This is a relief to everyone at Anderson Hospital.

Author Information:

Michael Ward is IS director, Anderson Hospital, Maryville, Ill.