Picture it: Your computer crashed and burned, taking with it all your precious data. But don’t panic — there is a sliver of hope that you’ll be able to salvage that missing data from the dead machine.
However, before we get into what to do about recovering your lost data, I must reiterate the importance of a formal backup routine, including offsite storage. Disk recovery really should be considered as an absolute last ditch effort. While a hard disk recovery company may save your data (and your business) someday by raising your data from the dead, your practice should make every effort to avoid the need for this by ensuring you have adequate backup systems in place.
OK, lecture over. Let’s talk disk recovery.
You see it on an endless number of television crime dramas: A perpetrator is snagged because a super-geek resurrected hidden data that the criminal thought he had deleted for good from his PC hard drive. While it makes for good TV drama, there is a surprising amount of truth to what can be recovered from disk drives that have failed, or have been physically destroyed, thanks to improving technologies, and ever improving skill sets in the marketplace for data recovery.
If you find yourself in a situation where your storage media, such as PC hard drives or servers containing critical data, have failed or been physically damaged by fire, flood, or other catastrophe, there is hope — although it is an expensive hope and there is no guarantee.
It is important to understand some ground rules for disk recovery, which is the art and science of resurrecting data from dead disk drives, or other media.
First, you must understand what a disk recovery effort could potentially do for you. In your practice, the data stored on your drives (or other media such as digital camera storage cards) is a somewhat delicate arrangement of bits and bytes, which can fail resulting in the inability of your computer to see the data on the disk or other media, often referred to as the dreaded hard disk crash.
Such failures can occur for a number of reasons, which might include power surges, water damage, fire damage, dropping a laptop, or simply from a drive wearing out. Companies specializing in disk recovery can do amazing things using new technologies to recover data on such damaged drives, and can offer a last chance opportunity to recover your most precious data, if your backup solutions failed you as well. In addition to disk drives, recovery companies can also salvage data from some types of data cards, some magnetic tape platforms, and even USB keys, in some cases.
If the worst has happened to you, and you find yourself exploring disk recovery options, it is very important to understand that the disk recovery industry is largely unregulated. As such, nearly anyone can hang a shingle out advertising their services for data recovery. And if you are dealing with confidential patient data, you have no way of knowing how the drive will be handled, or if the recovery expert might make himself a copy as well, for his side business of identity theft.
Second, pricing runs the gamut. Reputable disk recovery companies’ pricing can start out around $2,000 for recovery of one standard PC hard drive, with prices increasing as the complexity of the recovery increases. Drives from servers, those that have been encrypted, or disk arrays (groups of hard drives acting as one drive) can be more costly if recovered by experts. While this pricing might seem high, in many situations those costs for recovery are quickly eclipsed by the costs the practice might incur if they cannot recover that data. As most involved in running a practice are aware, the costs of lost data includes a number of aspects, including staff downtime, loss of billing information resulting in cash flow interruptions, expense of duplicate efforts to re-enter lost data, as well potential short term and long term liabilities associated with loss of any electronically stored medical records.
What to do
If you find yourself in need of hard disk recovery options, here’s a rough guide to your next steps:
• Stop touching things. The likelihood of a successful recovery of data from a damaged disk by an expert recovery shop can be greatly influenced by what actions you take immediately following the detection of the failure. If your drive is making noises, or is invisible to your computer, and it contains critical data, don’t touch anything. Have an IT professional physically remove the drive(s), and store them in electrostatic protection bags, in preparation for shipment. Do not attempt to download free software from the Internet to recover the files yourself. If you attempt to use such software to recover the disk yourself, you run the risk of ruining what data was still recoverable.
• Find a reputable disk recovery company. This is probably the toughest part of the process, because these companies can range from companies with highly trained professionals, operating in what’s known as a “clean room” environment to college kids running a side business from their dorm room. While the latter may have some level of success, you should only trust your practice’s critical data to true experts. Contact the disk recovery company (which you can often find through a simple Internet search), and ask for references. Ask if they operate a true clean room, which is an isolated, dust- and static-free environment, where the disks are handled. Ask for success rates, and how many drives they handle per year. Ask if the employees have any certification, or if the company is in partnership with or authorized as a service center for specific drive manufacturers, which can be a sign of a more reputable shop. Don’t be afraid to pry. You will probably only have one chance to recover your data, so being picky is part of the process.
• Engage your software vendors. Even if your data is recovered (or partially recovered), you still will likely need the help of software vendors to fully restore your systems. If the data being recovered is from an EHR, transcription system, or financial package, contact your vendor, and make them aware of the situation, so they are ready to use the salvaged data to restore your systems completely.
• Learn a lesson. Whether you are lucky and end up recovering all of your lost data, or if you recover nothing, this is an opportunity to learn an important lesson: backups are your friend. Immediately pursue a backup solution for your practice that not only encompasses the type of data lost, but also includes all data (in every form and format) stored by your practice.
Data recovery companies can seem like magicians, salvaging data from disk drives damaged by fire, flood, or negligence. While they are a last chance type option, they are in business to help you. Of course, keep good backups (did I mention that already?), but if you find yourself with a server that took a shower from the sprinkler system, a good disk recovery company might just save your practice’s data, and your business.
Jonathan McCallister is a client-site IT manager for a major healthcare consulting firm, and he is currently assigned to a 140-physician practice. He has worked in healthcare IT management for more than eight years and in general IT management for more than a decade. He can be reached via [email protected].
This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Physicians Practice.