The destructive wildfires that have been widespread in California in recent years should be a reminder to healthcare providers and business owners of how important it is to back up records.
When the Camp Fire ripped through parts of Butte County in Northern California in November, it caused a confirmed 86 deaths and over $16 billion in damage, leveling thousands of homes and businesses and virtually the entire town of Paradise. This quickly “earned” it the title of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.
The Camp Fire earned this distinction only one year after the Tubbs Fire did, when it raged through Sonoma County (also in Northern California) in October 2017. Among the over 5,600 structures this inferno destroyed was the Santa Rosa Community Health’s Vista campus, a clinic that provided healthcare and dental services to 24,000 patients per year. As the clinic burned down, all those patient’s medical records went with it.
The loss of medical records is often overlooked among the widespread carnage that natural disasters inflict but can be majorly disruptive. Without accurate medical records, doctors and medical professionals can’t properly provide the healthcare their patients need and deserve, which can of course be dangerous or even deadly.
More immediately, the lack of accurate and accessible medical records can make the already difficult job of forensic examiners - identifying the victims of these disasters – close to impossible. The task can already take weeks or months and destroyed medical records compounds that – leaving family members in the dark as they worry about their missing loved ones.
Anthony Falsetti, a professor and forensic anthropologist at Arizona State University, says that “Without an intact body, the challenge of positively identifying an individual is difficult. Without useable DNA, intact dental evidence or complete bones, the challenge becomes more difficult...”
This, Falsetti notes, is because fire destroys the most obvious and most recognizable characteristics, we all have – like hair color and dental traits. Extreme heat also damages DNA enough to make it unusable.
Fire isn’t the only thing that destroys documents, of course. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes – they’re all culprits. If you’re located in hurricane-prone areas, for example, flooding is your biggest threat; back in the fall of 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and the East Coast, flooding ruined the medical records of over 1500 patients at the Community Health Care Association of New York State.
If forensic examiners don’t have access to the medical records they need –those records having been destroyed in the same disaster– identifying a body can be come nearly impossible. It can also cost medical practitioners massively in time, money and stress; they’re required to store patient records going back seven years, but the process for restoring lost files is painstaking and lengthy.
For this reason, many – if not most – healthcare facilities have started storing patient’s records and files with Electronic Health Record software. Physical paper files can be damaged or destroyed by any number of events, but digitized records are more secure – especially if those files are backed up remotely, in the cloud. Natural disasters can ruin paper files, but they likely can’t damage all various backups drives stored in multiple locations.
We can look back at Hurricane Sandy’s impact in New York to see just how effective vital electronic records can be. While flooding may have ruined thousands of physical records, files stored with electronic records software fared far better.
Lee Stevens, of the State Health Information Exchange Policy at the ONC, said that while the hurricane caused extensive damage, it “wasn’t able to corrupt electronic data,” adding that he didn’t believe “there was even one server lost” – referring to electronic health records in New York and New Jersey.
Switching to digitized records is, of course, only one of several measures you should take to keep documents safe. Electronic records should also be backed up, with copies stored on remote servers in case the main server or hard drive goes down. The more backups, the better - just be sure those backup servers are also compliant with any applicable privacy laws and regulations.
Back up files frequently, regularly and, ideally, automatically. If you’re storing them on your own servers, consider a backup generator so you can access them if the power goes out during a disaster.
Every healthcare facility and provider should switch to a paperless document management system, but they aren’t the only ones. This all goes for any organization that extensive and sensitive documents that are vital to other’s safety or to daily operations. Backing up those documents and keeping them accessible in case of emergencies should be a priority.
Preparedness is key. You almost never know when a natural – or unnatural- disaster will strike. Putting in the effort beforehand to digitize paper records and ensure the electronic files are reliably backed up, can end up saving you more time, effort and money when a disaster does hit, and ensure the safety of those who may rely on those records.
Larry Bennett, Sr. is the CEO of AccuImage, a 30-year leader in document and information management services based in Santa Clara. Their document processing and information management systems have been used by some of the world’s biggest brands in a variety of industries, including companies such as Nestle, PG&E and NVIDIA.
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