October 1998 Bulletin

Protecting data is worth cost effort

Install redundant systems uninterruptible power supplies; store backup data offsite

By Ronald Sterling

If you are the average medical practice, chances are you are vulnerable to a loss of information from your computer system. From ineffective backup techniques to poor maintenance, medical practices unnecessarily expose themselves to risks that can be easily and economically controlled. On the other hand, a loss of data could cost you time, money and, most important, credibility with your patients.

Before you balk at the cost and effort to protect your data, consider your investment in your computerized data. From the costs of employees entering the data to the value of the reports that your get from the system, the "cost" of your data could be substantial. In the event that your computerized data would be lost, your practice may not be able to schedule appointments, effectively bill patients, and track practice performance.

In order to protect your investment in your computerized data, you have to avoid events that can result in lost data, and be in a position to recover your data in the unlikely event of a data loss.

Install hardware options on your system that duplicate the components that more frequently fail compared to other pieces of hardware. Disk drives and internal power supplies have higher failure rates than many of the other components in a computer. You can buy systems with redundant power supplies to eliminate the power supply as a single point of failure. Disk drives are protected by using disk "mirroring" and increasing levels of disk redundancy. All of the strategies rely on writing the data to two separate disks at the same time. In the event that one of the disk drives fail, the system will continue to write to the duplicate disk. The damaged device is quickly replaced and the system will duplicate all of the information to the new redundant disk drive.

Use uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) that continue to supply your computer with electricity in the event of a power outage. If the system continues to operate, you will have the time to gracefully shut down and not risk damaging your computer or the data. However, you must make sure that the key components of your system are connected to some sort of UPS. Otherwise, all of your investment in UPS may yield few returns.

When your vendor sends you a new version of their software, hold onto the release for a month or two. Serious problems will be uncovered by early users. However, you will need to keep in contact with the vendor to monitor the status of the new release. You can plan to install the release when the product is stable.

Ideally, you should carefully plan to recover your data on a contingency basis and hope that you never have to use your plan. In order to recover your data, you must have a current backup of the data. Ideally, you should back up your data daily. Additionally, you should back up your software and data on a periodic basis. You should use rotating backup media for each day of the week (one tape for each day) and for each week in the month.

At a minimum, your most recent backup should not be kept in your office or even in the same building. You can keep your backups in a second office, a local bank vault or even in your home.

Make sure that you know what you would do if your system fails. You should know where you would buy equipment from and who would do the training. You should run through the recovery plan on a periodic basis to insure that your plan is still viable.

Using these strategies will dramatically cut your chances of experiencing a loss of data and allow you to quickly recover in the event of a computer failure.

Ronald Sterling, head of Sterling Solutions, Ltd., Silver Spring, Md., is a nationally recognized expert in computers for the health care industry.

Computer Link welcomes suggestions about future topics for the column and questions about the use of computers in orthopaedic practice. Send your suggestions to the Bulletin at AAOS, 6300 N. River Rd., Rosemont, Ill. 60018.


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