Be Prepared - For a Disaster

April 1, 2009
Owen Dahl

The time to plan for a natural disaster is when the sun is shining - in other words, right now.


I hesitate to raise the topic of disaster planning. It’s a 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 is to take a serious look at your practice’s disaster plan - or lack of one - during a calm time.

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

  • Select an alternate location and mission in advance. Even if you won’t be completely operational, plan for a receptionist and basic supplies and equipment to manage emergency cases. Also, know your local hospital’s disaster plan and how you will fit in.

  • Determine how you’ll connect with your employees. 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. Include a likely location for each employee as well as an alternate contact.

  • Inform your patients how you’ll communicate should a disaster befall your community. 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. At the other end, keep an old-fashioned phone in your office that does not require electricity - it merely plugs into the phone line.

  • Protect your electronic data. Make doubly sure that your data is backed up regularly, either to disks or an off-site server. Investigate automated back-up services. If you choose instead to make your own back-up disks, remove them from the clinic each night to a secure location. Have a plan for restoring your data.

  • Safeguard paper documentation. Routinely copy each patient-visit summary and give it 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. Keep a list (offsite) of all key vendors, including addresses, telephone numbers, and Web sites. Update the list regularly. 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 and Ike were important, first-hand lessons for me; the same could happen to you. 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 more than 24 years of experience in consulting for and managing medical practices. He can be reached at odahl@comcast.net.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Physicians Practice.