Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

August 20, 2010

One medical clinic is caught off-guard by a flood, which forced a first temporary shutdown in its 46-year history.

Key Points

The rain started on Friday night. By Sunday afternoon, the water was everywhere.

The water spilled over an embankment into the main office of the Hammond Clinic, a 75-physician multispecialty practice in Hammond, Indiana, drowning the first floor of the facility in six feet of water. The clinic's imaging department, located on the first floor, lost an x-ray machine, a CT scanner, and a PET scanner. Forty years of imaging studies were lost. Patient records, however, were safely on the fifth floor.

"One of the doctors had to be rescued from her car," Kevin says. "The time it took to flood just seemed like a few minutes."

The Hammond Clinic was caught off-guard by the flood-the first one to force its temporary shutdown in its 46-year history-but thanks to fast communication and electronic data back-up, it opened operations out of its two smaller satellite offices two days later.

"That's the reason we didn't go under financially, as well as physically, because we were able to keep working," Kevin says. "Otherwise, our 70-plus doctor multispecialty group would've been in the wind."

There's nothing you can do to stop a natural disaster from hitting your practice, but you can make it easier to protect yourself and rebuild. We talked with experts and physicians who shared the essential components of an air-tight disaster plan and what it takes to protect your greatest assets against destruction.

WORK BACKWARDS FROM THE DISASTER

The first step in any disaster plan is to determine your risk, experts say. Whether it be natural: flood, tornado, hurricane; or not: electrical fire, burst water pipe, terrorist attack, which event has the greatest chances of affecting your practice?

If you're not in a natural disaster risk area, that doesn't mean that the practice is safe from catastrophe.

"The biggest commercial insurance claim in the United States is flood and water damage from pipes not sustaining correct operations," says Chris Mahan, CHBC, of Nashville, Tennessee-based practice consultants Mahan & Associates LLC.

In a spreadsheet, assign 1 to 5 points to the probability of each disaster (flood, earthquake, fire, blackout, etc.); the overall impact of each one on the practice; and what effect each would have on the community, recommend the authors of What to Do Before, During, and After an Emergency or Disaster: A Preparedness Toolkit for Office-based Health Care Practices. Any disaster that scores 10 or more points should be included in the plan, according to the authors, who are from the American Medical Association (AMA) Public Health Readiness Office.

Once you've determined the greatest risks, you can begin to put together your plan. Each employee should have specific roles and responsibilities, with specified time frames as related to any potential disaster, Mahan says. If your staff is small, each person may have multiple responsibilities.

One of the first things you'll need to determine is whether you'll be able to continue practicing at another location. If you don't have another office, your practice could work out an agreement with another healthcare provider or hospital with extra space to operate out of while your office is being repaired or rebuilt. If you lease your space, real estate companies will offer tenants a temporary location in their contract in case of disaster, says Stephen Aborn, executive director for business development for Andrews International, a security-consulting firm that offers disaster preparedness services.