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Putting Patients First When Disaster Strikes

April 25, 2013
by Richard R. Rogoski
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Making disaster recovery planning work for clinicians

For Maureen Gaffney, M.H.S., R.P.A.C., R.N., disaster recovery strategy is not just about building in redundancy or backing up files; it’s all about making sure that the care of each patient is not interrupted, even if an unforeseen disaster strikes.

As senior vice president of patient care services and chief medical information officer (CMIO) at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y., Gaffney says her hospital began implementing its disaster recovery plan this year. Interestingly, Hurricane Sandy was not the impetus; rather, it was the fact that by this July, the hospital will be 100 percent paperless. “You can’t go paperless without knowing that you can access information if systems go down,” she says.

With 591 beds, Winthrop University Hospital is both a teaching hospital and a regional trauma center located in Nassau County on Long Island. The hospital has also been recognized in the industry for its advanced IT environment.

In developing a disaster recovery strategy, Gaffney—who in her role as CMIO reports to the CEO and as senior vice president, patient care services, reports to the COO—notes that she and her colleagues first had to decide whether to rely on their existing reporting system or start from scratch.

Because the hospital’s electronic health record is from the Malvern, Pa.-based Siemens Healthcare, its leaders decided to use the Siemens reporting system; and because its EHR is vendor-hosted, this gave them another level of security. In addition, Gaffney reports that system redundancy was achieved by connecting to a secondary data center located north of New York City in Westchester County.

The hospital also worked with Rochester, N.Y.-based Carestream Health, Inc.—which had already supplied it with its radiology information system/picture archiving and communications system (RIS/PACS) solution—to develop a cloud-based storage system with redundancy for all images.

Not stopping there, Winthrop University Hospital is also installing an on-site hard-drive backup system that will hold reports on every patient. With a continuous feed of patient data and a printer hooked up to its own generator, this system will give physicians access to patient data even during times when failed systems begin going back on line, Gaffney says.

It is this commitment to the patient and to patient care that Gaffney says should be the focus of any disaster recovery and business continuity strategy. “As a clinician, you can’t wait hours to access patient information,” she says. “It needs to be real-time access because it’s critical to maintain a safe environment for our patients.”

Still, Gaffney says, it took a bit of convincing before the IT professionals at her organization would sign on completely. “The challenge was having IT understand the need for it. They were looking at it as disaster recovery and redundancy, not as a business continuity solution,” she says.

In looking at the scope of disaster recovery strategies, Gaffney points to the potential use of wider networks to protect patient data and to track patients who may be evacuated from other hospitals, as was the case when Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast.

Winthrop University Hospital is a member of both a regional health information organization (RHIO) and a statewide health information exchange (HIE) whose networks could be utilized in case of an emergency, she says.

Gaffney offers this advice to others who are planning to implement a disaster recovery plan: “It’s all about the patient. It’s about what we need at the point of care to care for that patient. But it has to be immediate. You have to keep the information flowing.”