Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Business Continuity Planning

On this, the 4th anniversary of the North American blackout that left more than 50 million people in the dark, I thought it appropriate to discuss business continuity planning. Disasters happen and the health care community must be prepared for them. As health care becomes more dependent on information technology, health informaticians also have to be prepared. A disaster of any kind causes increased demand on the health system. We can't afford to have the technical infrastructure supporting healthcare compromised at the same time.

I had personal experience with two disasters while I was at the Ontario Smart Systems for Health Agency (SSHA). One was the blackout mentioned. At Smart Systems we thought ourselves clever by building two high availability data centers with alternate energy supplies and telecommunications systems that barely felt a blip during the blackout. While our data centers were happily humming along, our administrative offices were shut down, the roads, traffic and public telecommunications networks were gridlocked making it difficult for staff to carry out their duties (though they did manage to get through), and many of our clients were without the power needed to run their local systems.

The other disaster was the SARS outbreak that hit Toronto causing a massive public health crisis. Our own data center staff was quarantined for several days after a data center employee (not an employee of SSHA) in another part of the complex went into the data center while infected (that person later died - thankfully no SSHA staff were infected). Fortunately we were still in the build phase at the time and not running any critical health information systems out of the data center.

These and other disasters such as Hurricane Katrina demonstrate that catastrophic events do happen and that it behooves us to be prepared. See how jumpy public health officials are at the news of a chicken sneezing in a Chinese marketplace.

eHealth has the potential to help the health system cope with a disaster, as was evidenced during Katrina. Electronic health records can aid disaster workers and those who must care for chronically ill patients. But this only works when we have taken adequate precautions to ensure that our information systems are operational at the same time.

I came across a unique public health website the other day. The Peel Public Health Unit (servicing an area just outside of Toronto) is promoting business continuity planning as part of its public health program. They emphasize the need to anticipate disasters, to plan and protect our people, processes, facilities and technologies in the event of a disaster. The threats they suggest need to be addressed are:
  • Fire
  • Labour interruption
  • Communication breakdown
  • Pandemic influenza
  • Communicable disease outbreak
  • Supply chain interruption
  • Natural/man made disasters
  • Transportation accident - Rail
  • Essential services failure (power, water, sewer, telecom)
  • Water contamination
  • Flooding/drought/water shortage
  • Severe weather conditions (extreme heat, extreme cold, freezing rain and severe storms)
  • Technology collapse
  • Terrorism/Sabotage/Cyberterrorism
  • Bio terrorism
  • Your worst nightmare
Based on their risk assessment the threats in bold letters represent the 5 most serious threats to the Peel community. This will vary from community to community.

Disasters happen. Our eHealth systems will break down and fail. We need to be ready.

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