Be Prepared!

June 19, 2008
Owen Dahl

I hesitate to bring up the topic of disaster planning.

I hesitate to bring up the topic of disaster planning. It'sa topic that very often receives significant attention during a disaster and then gets pushed to the back of the closet when all is well. The challenge, therefore, is to take a serious look at your practice's disaster plan -- or lack of one -- during a calm time. If you don't plan for the unexpected, you are doing a disservice to yourself, your practice, your staff, and your patients.

Here are some key areas to consider as you build your disaster plan:

  • Alternate location and mission -- Select an emergency location in advance.

  • Identify an alternate site in a neighboring community where you can set up emergency operations, if needed.

  • Even if you won't be able to be completely operational, plan for at minimum, a receptionist and basic supplies and equipment to manage emergency cases.

  • Know your local hospital's disaster plan and where you will fit in.

  • Employee communication -- Determine how you will get in touch with your employees if thing go awry weather-wise.

  • Keep a list (offsite) of all employee home phone numbers, cell phone numbers, e-mails, etc. Indicate on the list who has text message capabilities.

  • Update the list regularly -- this sort of data can become obsolete quickly.

  • Include a likely contact location for each employee and a phone number for someone else who could serve as an alternate contact for them.

  • Patient communication -- Be proactive in educating your patients on the proper way you contact your office in the face of a disaster.

  • Post an alternate telephone number and e-mail address on your Web site and patient literature.

  • Consider using VoIP for your telephone, as it's more likely to stay in service in the face of a natural disaster.

  • Keep an old-fashioned phone in your office that does not require electricity.

  • Information systems -- Take steps to protect your EMR, billing, and financial data.

  • Make doubly sure that your data is backed up regularly, either to disks or an off-site server.

  • Investigate automated back up services and weigh the pros and cons of signing on with one against making your own back-up disks.

  • If you do make your own back-up disks, remove them from the clinic each night to a secure location.

  • Have a plan for restoring your data, once your clinic is operational again or you have set up an alternate location.

  • Documentation -- If your patient charts are paper-only, devise a plan for protecting your patient records and other paper-based information.

  • Routinely copy each patient-visit summary and give them to your patients, cautioning them to put the document in a secure place that's protected from water, fire, and the like.

  • In the event of an emergency, instruct them to bring this summary to your clinic so that there is a written record of their treatment to guide you or another physician, who might assume care.

  • Vendor support -- Set up a protocol for contacting your tech support and suppliers in the event of a wide-spread disaster.

  • Keep a list (offsite) of all key vendors, to include addresses, telephone numbers, and Web sites.

  • Again, update the list regularly -- this sort of data can become obsolete quickly.

  • In the event you need to establish operations at an alternate site, find out what emergency services your vendors provide and how best to contact them.

  • Insurance coverage -- Ensure that you have adequate insurance coverage for disasters.

  • Check your policies to make sure you have business-interruption coverage in a sufficient amount and understand all provisions surrounding it.

  • Also consider options covering fire, flooding, and catastrophic damage from natural disasters.

Having an emergency preparedness plan will not stop a disaster, but it will certainly help you and your staff deal more effectively with the challenges a disaster can bring. Katrina was an important, first-hand lesson for me, and the recent floods and tornados in the Midwest only serve to emphasize the importance of preparing for an emergency. If you would like a disaster planning guide, contact me by e-mail and I will be happy to provide you with a template. Exercise caution and be prepared!

Owen Dahl, FACHE, CHBC, is a nationally recognized medical practice management consultant with over 24 years of experience in consulting for and managing medical practices and author of Think Business! Medical Practice Quality, Efficiency, Profits. He can be reached at odahl@comcast.net or 281 367 3364.