All types of storms can cause significant damage, from a tornado spawned by summer thunderstorms to heavy snows that lead to building collapses. Hurricanes like Sandy, Katrina, Harvey and Irma have created catastrophic damage in their wake, including flooding, destroyed buildings and extended power outages. As a healthcare provider, you are not immune to damage from a storm. Your buildings can flood, your roof collapse and extended power outages can cause significant issues for your organization. One of the most important things to protect is the healthcare data you store on your patients. There are things you can do to make sure that patient data is protected and safe during and after a storm.
If you’re like many health organizations today, you’re storing much of your patient data in electronic form. After Superstorm Sandy in 2012, it was discovered that healthcare organizations who stored patient data electronically were better able to assist patients during disasters, even with widespread power outages. During the storm, Long Beach Medical Center suffered significant damage. The basement where the electrical, heating and communications systems were located flooded with more than 10 feet of water.
Prior to the storm’s landfall, however, the hospital backed up data stored as electronic health records so that it could be accessed after the storm passed. This critical step allowed them to access patient records after the storm, and the backup protected all records from damage when the hospital itself was inaccessible.
Personal Electronic Records
Doctors and healthcare providers are not the only ones who need to protect healthcare data during and after a storm. Medical records contain a significant amount of personal information. After tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, paper healthcare records were found as far as 75 miles from the storm center. During Hurricane Katrina, over a million paper records were destroyed.
Although most healthcare providers now use electronic health records, it is possible that extended power outages or lack of internet service could mean that physicians can’t access vital records. It’s also possible that patients and doctors can’t communicate after a disaster due to things beyond their control, like evacuation orders.
For these and other practical reasons, patients should create a Personal Health Record (PHR), which can be completed manually or downloaded from a physician if offered. You determine who can and cannot access the information. While a PHR does not replace the legal healthcare information in your physician’s file, it can be a backup source for when you can’t access your actual record after a storm.
Another way for both healthcare organizations and individuals to protect their medical records is through patient portals. During and after an emergency, patient portals allow you to access your health information no matter where you are. In some cases, the patient portal allows you to download information to your own PHR. The portal also enables you to refill prescriptions, check lab results and interact with your provider. Using the portal, a physician in another area can get the information he needs for treatment if you’re not able to return home anytime soon.
In rural areas where internet access is not as readily available, it may be necessary to retain records in paper form. In addition, some older people are not comfortable with electronic health records or may not be familiar with computers.
If your healthcare provider still uses paper files, request a copy for your own records. Store the records in a fireproof safe or lock box. Be sure to place the papers in a Ziploc bag if there is a risk of flooding from the storm. You will also want to have a copy of your health insurance cards, prescription records and contact information for all of your physicians, especially your primary care doctor.
Medical providers who must retain paper records should have a plan in place for getting all records out of harm’s way before the storm arrives. It may mean loading file cabinets into trucks and transporting them to a safe place. You may also need to invest in stormproof transport boxes that will allow you to move the files to a safe place prior to the storm.
The best way to protect any medical records during and after a storm is to store them electronically and to have backups of any electronic records. Quick and easy access to medical records will help you if you’re injured or sick. The last thing you want to do when you’re tired, scared or injured is sort through the wreckage of your personal belongings looking for your immunization record.