Summer-Proof Your Practice: Take Precautions to Protect Your Computers

Hurricanes, torrential rain, flooding, hail, high winds, tornadoes, heat waves, brownouts, power failures, wildfires. If you’re in North America, summer is sure to send something your way. You have insurance to protect the building and its contents. A disaster plan to safeguard staff and animals. How’s your computer system?

You have a disaster plan and insurance to protect your staff, patients, and practice. But is your computer system ready for summer’s nasty storms?

by Constance Hardesty, MSc

Hurricanes, torrential rain, flooding, hail, high winds, tornadoes, heat waves, brownouts, power failures, wildfires. Take your pick. If you’re in North America, summer is sure to send something your way.

You have insurance to protect the building and its contents. A disaster plan to safeguard staff and animals.

How’s your computer system?

“Any natural disaster is hard on equipment,” said technology consultant Nancy Dewitz. “As we move into the spring and summer storm seasons, that’s when we really notice how vulnerable our practices are, and especially our technology.”

Weather events can cause catastrophic failure, taking down hardware and software alike. And you may not discover the damage until you try to use the system. A screen stares blankly, the printer stays stubbornly offline, or your server quits serving.

“A computer isn’t going to tell you that yesterday was its last day of work. You’ll find out when you turn it on in the morning,” Dewitz said.

Sometimes, instead of the obvious full-scale failure, staff will start to see odd problems.

Some computers work, others don’t. Some files open, others won’t. The digital X-ray machine stops talking to your practice management software.

“If you’ve had some brownouts or power issues, those can show up in things that happen in the screen and software,” Dewitz explained.

“When data gets corrupted, it’ll show up as out-of-the-ordinary things. Records can go missing, or reports won’t run.”

Staff will spot many failures as they try to use the technology. But appearances can be deceiving—and devastating. What if it looks like all systems are go, and you don’t discover that the digital radiology images are not really being saved to the medical record until you need to view them?

You could spend a fortune in time and money to track down and fix the problems.

Or you could plan ahead.

Precautionary Measures

The best way to protect computer equipment from electricity surges and outages caused by nasty weather is a battery backup with power conditioning, Dewitz advises. (As a bonus, the same technology can protect your computer system every day from unpredictable blips and interference.)

Know this: We’re not talking surge protectors. Power conditioners are a whole different animal.

“I explain it like this,” Dewitz said. “An electricity provider supplies clean power, just like your water provider supplies clean water. But if you need more than that—say, if you need distilled water—then you take the extra steps to get what you need for your particular application.

“The same goes for electricity. The electricity that comes into your building is for general use. But computer systems need more refined electricity. A power conditioner (or line conditioner) takes the power that comes into your building and cleans it up.”

“A computer isn’t going to tell you that yesterday
was its last day of work. You’ll find out when you
turn it on in the morning.”
—NANCY DEWITZ, TECHNOLOGY CONSULTANT

A power conditioner looks like a box with several receptacles or plug-ins. The conditioner acts as a buffer between the power lines coming into the building and your equipment. Basically, a power conditioner “cleans up” electricity by smoothing out blips in voltage and filtering out radio and electromagnetic interference that might go unnoticed in regular use but that affect your computer systems’ performance and longevity.

Line conditioners and battery backup (also called uninterruptible power supply) often come packaged together. They are readily available from several manufacturers and can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, depending on the application.

Your local IT provider or system administrator should recommend the system that is right for you. But it always pays to double-check that the system is being updated along with your hardware and software. As you add hardware and as software becomes more powerful, the specifications for battery backup and power conditioning may change.

What about generators?

For protecting your computer system, “only a small group of practices in the United States would see a satisfactory ROI [return on investment] on the expense of a whole-hospital generator,” Dewitz said.

On the other hand, a generator can maintain power to key medical equipment to avoid disasters, like preventing an anesthesia machine from quitting midsurgery. During extended outages, it can also help to keep air temperature and humidity at livable levels for patients and staff until power is restored or animals are moved.

However, as HUB International pointed out, “generators don’t solve all your problems.” If you don’t have fuel on hand when you need it, or if you run out of fuel during an extended emergency, the generator is useless.

If you do use a generator, “make sure you know how to use it,” cautioned HUB in a blog post about hurricane safety. “During past storms, generators have led to fatalities when not used in a manner that ensured CO2 emissions were properly ventilated.”

To learn more about battery backup, power conditioning, and generators, see the resources near the end of this article.

Protect Your Data, Too

Computer systems don’t live on power alone. Just as you’d protect your power supply, also protect your data.

At one time that was pretty simple. If you backed up your practice management software, you were good to go. But as more medical equipment, like digital radiography machines, comes with its own data storage systems, backups become more complicated.

“We assume that because equipment is attached to the network, it’s being backed up,” Dewitz said. But that doesn’t happen automatically.

Even though the systems are linked, their data may be stored in separate “boxes.” Hooking the equipment up to the network means you can access the radiographs, but if you want to back them up, you have to configure your backup utility to do it.

Dewitz has seen all too many cases in which that hasn’t happened.

Power surges, brownouts, and total interruption can cause odd, intermittent problems that are incredibly hard to track down.

Over the past several years, she has been asking practice managers and owners about their data backup protocols. “What I discovered was alarming. Nine out of ten practices that I talked to missed something in backup protocol,” she said.

“With more cloud-based practice management systems, more people are backing up to the cloud,” she pointed out. But again, those backups need to be configured to include all of a practice’s data, not just the practice management software.

Practices that can’t afford to back up to the cloud can create two backups on hard media (external hard drive or server backup). One backup is for immediate use and is stored onsite. The other backup is your failsafe and must be stored offsite.

The second backup is crucial, Dewitz advises. A backup has to be available when the main computer system is unavailable for any reason. “Let’s say you keep your backup on an external hard drive stored in a safe in the veterinarian’s office. Lightning has just struck the building, starting a fire. You and your staff are going to focus on rescuing animals and ensuring your own safety. Who is going to remember or take time out to fetch the hard drive from the safe?” she asked.

When Electricity Is Interrupted

As mentioned, power surges, brownouts, and total interruption can cause odd, intermittent problems that are incredibly hard to track down. And because hardware and software can be configured in a million ways, there’s no simple “if this, then that” troubleshooter.

Spotting subtle software problems is “really all about paying attention to what’s normal for your computer and what’s not,” Dewitz said. “It’s about whether things look or act differently after storms.”

To restore service to pets and clients quickly, Dewitz suggests you focus on the fix.

Just as you have protocols for common tasks, have written standard operating procedures (SOPs) for common computer problems, Dewitz says. “If there’s an error on the screen, what are staff supposed to do? Whom do they call? Be sure the SOP lists phone numbers for software and hardware support,” she said.
“To avoid delays in serving patients and clients, the SOP should tell staff whether there is another station they can use, where it is, and directions for logging in,” she added.

“Enable everyone on staff to report and discuss problems they encounter. Don’t hope that things will work themselves out. List all of the problems you’re having. Take screen shots and make notes. Then call in your local IT service provider. You’re paying for support. Use it.”

The Other Summer Hazard: Crazy Busy

by Nancy Dewitz, as told to Constance Hardesty

Spring and summer are hard on the elderly. Elderly computers, that is.

The older your hardware is, the more susceptible it is to things like heat and power fluctuations.

People say, “My first PC lasted forever.” But today’s faster computers are more susceptible because we’re processing so much more information than we did in the old days.

As a result, anomalies can affect the hardware more drastically because so much is going on, shifting information packets around the circuits.

Think of computer circuits as highways. If there are only 10 cars on the highway, and you throw a baseball into the mix, you’re probably not going to hit any cars. Things will just go on as normal.

But if it’s rush hour and the highway is crowded and the cars are moving fast, not only is your baseball going to hit a car, but the impact could cause a multicar pileup.

A 3-year-old PC is ancient—it’s like a 75-year-old human. As we age, we get aches and pains and issues. So do old computers. Yet most people change out their phones faster than they replace their computers.

Between your computer’s internal traffic and your practice’s hectic schedules, your oldest computers may not be up to the demands of spring and summer. To avoid time-consuming, service-disrupting glitches, think about replacing computers before the rush hits.

You don’t have to do it all at once.

Start rotating in new equipment in areas where it is used most or where failures can stress out staff or clients. The front desk and exam rooms are both good places to start. As a bonus, that’s where the computers are most visible to clients.

Your clients judge you by what they see. You can have the most state-of-the-art software, but if you have an ancient computer, they’re going to assume that’s what your whole system is like.

Resources

What is an uninterruptible power supply?

What is a power conditioner?

Constance Hardesty, MSc, is the former editor in chief of AAHA and has 15 years’ experience covering veterinary technology and trends.

Photo credits: ©iStock.com/mdesigner125, ©iStock.Drazen Zigic, ©iStock.com/Gregory_DUBUS

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