IT shows resilience after natural disasters

By Larry McClain
11:04 AM

Some of the most devastating tornadoes and floods in U.S. history have occurred in just the last two years. IT professionals who survived the storms say their technology held up well. They felt lucky to have paperless systems in place.

They recounted their experiences during  a panel discussion at the HIMSS Summit of the Southeast Sept. 29 in Nashville, Tenn.

“It’s vital for us to ‘imagine the unimaginable’ and get the necessary training beforehand,” said Susan Cooper, former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health. “For example, if we had another earthquake like the one in New Madrid, Mo. in 1811, it would completely overwhelm the healthcare system in the Southeast. That’s why I urge healthcare IT people to go to the FEMA website and take the National Incident Management System (NIMS) training."

When a tornado leveled St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo. last May, it knocked out the Epic system which had just gone live three weeks before the disaster. “Within seven days, we had the Epic EHR up and running again in a mobile medical unit,” said Michael McCreary, chief of technology services for Sisters of Mercy Health System, which operates St. John’s and 24 other facilities nationwide. “We were lucky to have a paperless system that could be restored fairly quickly,” he said. “Some of our old paper records got blown 70 miles away.”

DCH Health System in Tuscaloosa, Ala. narrowly missed destruction in last April’s mile-wide tornado that ravaged the city. “Power was knocked out, but we had a brand-new uninterruptible power supply and were able to rely on our backup generators,” said Kim Ligon, CIO at the hospital. “But many of our neighbors weren’t so lucky. The state emergency management office was demolished, so there was a lot of chaos. People were bringing patients to our emergency room in wheelbarrows and on wooden doors that had been blown off.”

“The disaster made us rethink a lot of things,” said Ligon. “We’ll probably relocate our backup data center further away from the main facility, because we had a close call. And we’re thinking twice about adding armed guards. During the power outage, there was some looting of our hospital supplies. So imagine the cost if someone took expensive IT equipment during all the confusion.”