Preparing for disasters in the health care sector

Preparing for disasters in the health care sector

Dec 12, 2014


Disaster recovery is crucially important for many organizations, but there some industries where IT system failures could put people's lives at risk.

Health care is one of these sectors, which means providers must have adequate business continuity measures in place should unforeseen circumstances strike.

The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that health care spending in the UK is on the rise. In 2012, expenditure climbed 1.9 per cent year on year to £144.5 billion.

Much of this increase is because there is an ageing population, with older demographics requiring more treatment. New drugs and medical device innovations are also expensive to research and get to market.

However, disaster recovery is one area where UK health care providers may need to invest more money in the future. This is particularly true as the country moves towards a more data-driven model.

With many crucial patient-care systems relying on IT, an outage or failure can have significant ramifications for health care services. This can lead to canceled appointments, delayed operations and people receiving the wrong treatments.

In worst-case scenarios, health care providers can endanger people's lives because of a database failure. There is also a significant risk of hefty regulatory fines, litigation costs and loss of reputation.

Protecting IT systems

Public and private health care organizations face a range of issues that could affect the availability of IT systems, including software and hardware failures, external threats such as hackers or viruses, and power outages.

The UK does not experience many natural disasters, although floods are a risk in certain low-lying areas throughout the year, especially in south-west England.

Technology analyst firm Gartner has previously underlined the importance of adequate disaster recovery measures for organizations that need full access to IT systems at all times.

"CIOs and IT organizations should consider scenarios in which normal operations could be disrupted and adopt/adapt practices​ and technologies that enable them to deal with potential disruption from hostile, external actions as well as internal system failures," the company stated.

There are a number of technologies available to enhance business continuity capabilities, including sophisticated Oracle disaster recovery. For example, multiple standby databases can be created offsite or in the cloud so that in the event of a system outage, the organization can failover to a replicate database.

This would allow health care providers to maintain system access and data availability even when the source database is down. As such, the impact on patient care is minimized until the original system is up and running again.

Preparing a plan

When formulating a disaster recovery plan, there are various key elements that health care providers should consider.

Firstly, they will need to identify the most important departments in terms of patient care. This enables them to prioritize the IT applications that support these areas.

Evaluating how much downtime is acceptable for each department is usually the next step. In hospitals and surgeries, the amount of manageable downtime will be closely associated with the potential health risks to a patient.

The issue of data loss will also be extremely important for health care providers - losing patient records or crucial treatment information and histories could cause significant problems.

Therefore, organizations must find software solutions that minimize or eliminate the chance of losing vital data in the aftermath of a disaster. Having data backed up in the cloud is one option, with real-time replication techniques able to maintain up-to-date records automatically.

Lastly, it is important to test disaster recovery protocols regularly to ensure staff are well versed in dealing with a variety of situations. Even with the right technology and protocols in place, problems can still occur if employees fail to follow the guidelines.

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