Hurricanes teach costly lesson on the safety of medical records

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After Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita hit, more than one million people had their medical records destroyed or lost permanently, said James Holly, MD, CEO of Southeast Texas Medical Associates (SETMA), yesterday at the HIMSS Conference in New Orleans. But if the health care system had instated electronic medical records before the storms raged, this medical disaster would have been prevented, and all important health information could have been restored, said Holly, who manages SETMA’s 21-physician group practice that runs electronically connected clinics in Beaumont, Texas.

As SETMA was flooded with evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, Beaumont soon faced the ominous Hurricane Rita. After helping to treat the displaced people from Katrina, SETMA soon had to abandon their clinics as well. But Holly’s practice beat the storm, while paper-based practices suffered.

“It is not enough to preserve data,” Holly said. “It’s critical to preserve systems integration and continuous access to patient health information with longitudinal portraits of their health -- that is the safety and security thinking of electronic patient management.”

Holly’s practice managed to preserve all of their system data by using an EMR (electronic medical record) database, an APM (application performance monitor), and a LIS (logical IP subnet) database to back up all information, and by protecting their 77 software programs. They have two additional NAS (network attached storage) devices; one device is housed on a local network, and another device is housed outside of their region. Every night, the two systems are mirrored and dated, so all data is recorded in two places at the same time. They use battery back-ups and an on-site generator.

As Rita loomed in the distance, the Beaumont practice rehearsed the shutdown process, and was ready to relocate to safer ground north of Dallas. All of their records were safely stored and protected electronically, where they could access them at a later date in another location. “As Rita hit that night, our data was safe, our data was secure, our data was accessible, and afterward we were able to communicate and share information,” Holly said.

Other practices suffered. Some evacuees seeking care after Katrina struck had previously been treated for cancer, but when they arrived in Beaumont, they did not even know what kind of tumors they had, Holly said. “We were more concerned about the long-term care of evacuees with chronic medical conditions, who were not getting the treatment they needed,” he added. There was no way to tell what conditions these people had, what medications they took, or what kind of care they required.

The goal is that we build a national infrastructure that has integrated access to data with security codes. “With Rita and Katrina, if we had had patients’ medical records, we would have been able to avoid stress for the evacuees,” Holly said. “We would have had all that data at our fingertips.”