3 health IT must-haves for natural disaster preparedness

Responding to disasters is something every healthcare institution needs to be ready for. From hurricanes to snowstorms to wildfires, having a plan in place and technology to back it up is critical to an effective response.

During these times of crisis many simple things, such as contacting relatives of patients or ordering crucial supplies can become major headaches if an adequate plan is not arranged beforehand. As many healthcare centers employ a higher than average concentration of IT equipment, there are certain ways they can leverage them to cope with disasters- and things they must do to safeguard their technology as well.

Mike Detjen of Arcadia Solutions speaks about some of the must-haves for HIT in disaster scenarios – ways it can be useful and things to be concerned about.

1. On-site safety. "We had some pretty significant Rhode Island floods," says Detjen, referring to Hurricane Irene hurricane. "Pretty significant losses in terms of IT that was on the ground floor where there was flooding that went up to the 2nd floor. There was a six month, very expensive process to rebuild all that." Detjen says healthcare providers need to think about where their IT assets are and how they are protected. Is data and source code backed up? Detjen says that many major facilities have their "basic IT discipline covered," but that smaller ambulatory care facilities may not have standards and practices as strict. He says it is a "fuzzy area. Who is responsible for the IT? Who is responsible for making sure that data is backed up?"

2. Off-site data. "What do you do if your power is out? If your ISP is down and you're using a cloud based provider, how do you deal with that?" asks Detjen. Although storing data and running applications in the cloud can be a major efficiency booster and cost cutter, being without access to it can cripple any practice, small or large. Low tech can come to the rescue, says Detjen. "Are you printing patient schedules for next week? Printing patient summaries? It's something they should have been thinking about last week."

3. Accessibility. When it comes to IT and the cloud, it's not all doom and gloom. In fact, there are many ways high-tech solutions can be invaluable during and after a crisis. EHRs enable health providers to quickly share and access the information for patients. Hospitals and emergency responders can communicate and coordinate on a very detailed level.

"If a hospital has a health insurance exchange in place, if they have longitudinal patient records around those exchanges, or a data warehouse, those can be extremely valuable in terms of accessing patient information and making it available" to healthcare providers, says Detjen. Gaining access to these technologies can range from emergency portable cell towers, like the kind provided by disaster relief organizations, to "a more low-tech solution," he adds. "With the advent and prevalence of 3G, you can tether your phone to a computer to reach an EHR. That can be extremely valuable if you've got all of your info stored in the cloud."