EHR downtime – what to do when a technology disaster strikes

A doctor writing on tablet and using a laptop.

Throughout the medical industry, there are six words you never want to have to say to a frazzled patient who made time in their busy schedule to stop by the office: “I’m sorry, our system is down.” When IT disasters strike, you lose access to appointment schedules, lab results, medical records, and more.

You’ve spent months training staff on utilizing their respective Electronic Health Record (EHR) – how do you cope with sudden system crashes that could last hours, days, or even weeks?

What Are Electronic Health Records?

EHRs have become vital to both hospitals’ and physicians’ practices. They are a secure, electronic version of a patient’s medical and healthcare history and often include sensitive and personal data. The EHR automates access to information and streamlines the provider’s workflow, which is why IT crashes can be catastrophic in business operations. There is a significant risk of liability exposure if the clinical staff’s access to records is suddenly cut off and the clinician proceeds with treatment without access to relevant data.

This blog post will detail some guidelines on preparing for a crash or loss of data and how to act moving forward. To learn more about IT best practices and how you can safeguard your business, download our Data Backup Strategy Guide.

Seek To Understand Why Your EHR Failure Happened

EHR outages often stem from either an internal hardware problem or an external source, primarily if the specific system is hosted in the cloud. The HIPPA Security Rule requires healthcare providers to have a contingency plan and ensure data backups, so no critical information is lost during a system failure.

While it may take some time for a business to diagnose the problem, providers should expect a phone call when their system goes down for more than an hour. If you do not get a respective phone call, reach out to the help desk or your vendor’s representative to get some answers. Many vendors will provide their clients with a detailed disaster plan, so be sure to review the procedures and be familiar with the steps that need to be taken.

While sorting through the issues, the IT team should notify administrative and clinical staff that the systems are down, and patients should be similarly informed upon arrival.

Be Adaptable And Keep Things Moving

Providers are highly dependent on electronic medical records, and losing access to that information adds to the complexity of the healthcare industry. Without access to crucial information, providers often have to turn to do it the “old-fashioned way.” As an employer, ensure that your providers are versed in asking patients about relevant medical histories and recording the information before making any treatment decisions. Include crucial questions that must be asked at the beginning of each process.

Systems often include checklists for doctors and nurses; without those lists, they have to rely on their training and experience to think through the treatment process. Certify that your doctors and nurses are adaptable and not overly reliant on technology.

Develop A Process For Patient Intake And Scheduling

Administrative staff should have access to pre-approved paper forms in the event of an EHR crash. Intake staff may not have the opportunity to print out daily appointment schedules before the outage, in which case a paper sign-in form should be used to keep track of patient arrival. Blank encounter forms and charge slips should also be available, and new patients should be assigned a temporary medical record number until their official record can be created.

When notified that the system is back up and running, a designated staff member should complete check-in procedures for patients seen during the outage. This procedure reviews encounter forms, billing information, patient summaries, and other documentation and is sent to clear the backlog.

Keep Clinical Documentation

Physicians must be familiar with paper charts used during emergencies and what documentation is necessary to create a complete electronic record. Clinicians should ask patients about allergies, medications, and recent procedures if such information is unavailable. Lab tests and pharmacy orders may need to be called in, faxed, or hand-delivered, meaning physicians must decide which tests can be delayed until the EHR functions correctly.

When your system is back online and has been confirmed to be stable, a staff member should enter all clinical information into the proper charts by hand. This can be time-consuming, so providers should designate a specific data entry person.

Practice For Potential Future Outages

Providers should invest time and energy in performing routine downtime drills. Develop a training packet for staff to study, which encompasses essential questions for staff about their roles during an EHR outage. These questions should detail the procedures they will need to carry out by hand without a computer system’s aid.

Follow up and conduct routine tests to keep information fresh in your staff’s minds. Remember that practice makes perfect, and planning for an emergency is only helpful if everyone knows the drill.

Safeguard Your Business Today

Instead of worrying about losing crucial patient information, you should ask yourself, “How can we prepare for system outages?” If you take proper consideration and put the right motions into place, you’ll spend less time stressing over such a failure.
Thinking your data is safe is not the same as knowing it is. With the right IT partner by your side, you can gain peace of mind knowing you have a team of professionals managing, monitoring, and maintaining your IT systems to ensure operational continuity. Are you interested in outsourcing your IT security? Check out this blog post on the 7 top reasons to consider outsourcing your cyber security, as well as tips for vetting potential IT security firms.

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