Don’t let patient records float away

The past several years have taught us that no building is safe from the wrath of Mother Nature ... not even a hospital. When your facility is threatened by a hurricane, flood, blizzard or tornado, the safety of your patients and staff is the number one priority.

Once arrangements are made for protecting the people, you need to protect the medical records. And while all businesses need to develop a plan to back up and safely store records, electronic files, and papers, the disaster preparedness needs for a medical facility are even more critical.

Critical and irreplaceable data – The paper and images stored in medical files and electronically are a matter of life and death to patients. When medical records are key to a diagnosis or treatment plan, missing records can dramatically affect the prognosis.

Confidentiality – Medical records are far more personal and private than any other type of business records. If these files abandoned, scattered or otherwise unprotected, patient privacy is unprotected as well.

Non-centralized storage and use – Medical records in a hospital do not stay in one place. At any given time, the records of a single patient could be in the lab, the floor nurses’ station, the surgical suite, and a dozen other places.

Preparing in advance to protect your patients

Start with the location

In many hospitals, the medical records are stored at the lowest level in the building. This puts them at the highest risk of destruction, whether from flood or building collapse. If possible, select a new location that is:

  • Above flood level
  • More likely to be accessible following building collapse. Basement locations are often completely inaccessible once filled with the material from the former building.
  • Fireproof
  • In an area with two or more access points. Single door rooms can quickly become blocked and inaccessible because of debris

Develop and practice a disaster preparedness drill and recovery process

Long before the first hurricane watch or blizzard alert is issued, your facility needs to have a thorough and tested disaster preparedness plan and disaster recovery plan.
  • Designate a representative from each department or area of the hospital. Have them designate a backup in the same area.

  • Have a meeting with the representatives to determine their data and file responsibilities.

  • Develop a 72, 48 and 24 hour plan for each area in the hospital. Detail the steps personnel would take to gather and secure medical records. Be clear on who does what ... great procedures are of no use if everyone thinks someone else will do it!

  • Test your procedures under a variety of possible situations ... full notice, as with a hurricane, short notice, and emergency evacuation. Make adjustments as needed.

  • Develop a post disaster recovery plan for data bases, electronically stored records and paper records. Test this also under a variety of scenarios.

  • Make sure the plan is:

    • Understood
    • Accessible
    • Updated, as needed

Backup records electronically

Paper charts, lab reports, daily notes, and other hardcopy materials can be scanned directly into a centralized data base. Most radiological results are already in electronic format. Store the records onsite, and in a remote location far from your facility’s geographic location. Be sure your data base is secure ... HIPAA laws require you to protect confidentiality of records in all formats, even in a crisis.

Encourage virtual file checkout

Encourage the hospital staff to check out patient files virtually on a secure intranet. This allows the main paper files to remain in your secure area while doctors, therapists and other professionals use the files throughout the hospital. Not only does it protect your files from loss, it means that updates are instantaneous and accessible to all members of the medical team. Again, make sure HIPAA rules are followed in protecting patient information.

Disaster preparedness is not optional

Disaster preparedness and disaster recovery plans are critical to your hospital, and to the patients you serve. Make sure your facility is ready for anything.

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