Disaster Planning Is Your Medical Practice Ready for the Unexpected?

On June 1, tornadoes ripped through Western Mass., from Westfield to Monson and beyond. Then, on Aug. 23, an earthquake with an epicenter in Virginia shook buildings and caused damage throughout the Eastern U.S. Shortly thereafter, on August 28, Hurricane Irene made landfall in New Jersey, and tropical-storm conditions worked their way up through New England, causing some of their most significant damage in Vermont.

Yes, we live in New England, and those were tornadoes, an earthquake, and a hurricane that affected us this summer — which is exactly why disaster planning is so critical. You never know when disaster will strike and what form it will take when it does. This article will help you to understand why having a plan is potentially so important to the survival of your practice, provide you with some resources to help create your plan, and give you some information on what should be included in your plan.

Do You Have a Plan?

In 2008, the Medical Group Management Assoc. (MGMA) conducted a survey of medical practices regarding their preparedness for an emergency. The results were stunning, particularly since the survey was conducted in 2008, after the events of 9/11, the SARS scare of 2003, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

According to the survey, approximately 30{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of practices have no emergency plan at all, and 68{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} would not know how to coordinate with federal agencies, such as FEMA, while 87{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} felt that there was a moderate to high probability of some form of disaster occurring within a five-year period of time.

For those that fall within the 30{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} category, it should be pointed out that HIPAA contains a requirement to protect patient records in the event of a disaster. If disaster should strike, and you have not adequately planned, further damage could come in the form of fines and penalties for not adhering to the HIPAA regulations.

What Resources Are Available?

For those of you that do not have a plan currently in place, or for those who feel it is time to review the adequacy of your plan, there are resources available. First, the MGMA has gathered a series of resources, which can be located at their Web site, www.mgma.com/emergency.

These resources include various articles on the subject matter, as well as tools to assist in developing your emergency plan. The most comprehensive of these tools is the Emergency Preparedness Response and Recovery Checklist, which was developed by the American Health Lawyers Assoc. in 2004.

Additional resources can be located through the American Medical Assoc. Center for Public Health Preparedness and Disaster Response, which is a physician resource at its Web site, www.ama-assn.org. Also, the Mass. Medical Society has included links at www.massmed.org to various relevant Web sites, such as the American Red Cross, FEMA, and the CDC, as part of its MMS Alliance.

Keys to Success

While each plan can take on a variety of forms, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are a few key items that should be considered when developing any disaster plan. First, keep backups and other items offsite. Sure, backing up your patient database and storing it in your desk drawer will help if your server crashes, but this will do you no good if a fire in your office is the cause of the server failure.

The same can be said for a listing of people to contact in the event of an emergency, which would include how to contact your patients. This phase of the plan becomes even more difficult, if not impossible, for those practices that have not yet migrated to an electronic medical record system.

Second, consider delegating various aspects of the operation of the disaster plan to different team members. This way, the entire success of the plan does not rest on any one individual’s shoulders. Depending on the extent of the emergency, many people from your office may need to oversee certain aspects of the plan in a timely manner. Without proper delegation, the situation may become difficult to manage if staff are spread out or if something were to happen to the person charged with its operation.

Next, it is critical to review and update your plan on a periodic basis. Over time, roles within the organization change, as well as operational aspects of your practice.

Finally, it is imperative to understand how your practice will be able to survive financially after a disaster. This starts with keeping records of all of your bank-account information and understanding the terms of a line of credit that you may have.

Next, you should have a detailed understanding of your current insurance policy, including what types of disasters or events would, and would not, be covered if a claim was made. Lastly, this includes knowing all of your third-party payers and how you could continue to bill for services rendered and receive payment.

Disaster could strike the area that you live in or your practice at any time. The survival of your practice may depend on being prepared and having a plan in place ensuring that you and your staff know how to respond. When the next disaster strikes, will you be ready? v

James T. Krupienski, CPA, MSA, is senior manager at Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., in Holyoke; (413) 536-8510; www.mbkcpa.com