I was frustrated because I'd been trying to reach my doctor on the phone all day, and all I got was a busy signal. I needed a prescription refill, and the doctor needed to make the call. So, while I was in the area, I cruised over to see his office manager.
Then the reason for the phone problem became clear. First was the yellow crime scene tape. Then I saw the big white truck, clearly labeled, 'City of Fairfax, Crime Scene Investigation.' Then I saw the cars of the Fire Marshall and the Fire Chief. Clearly, this wasn't a good sign.
Following my reporter's instincts, I wandered around until I found a door that hadn't been blocked by yellow tape, and went upstairs to the doctor's office. Things were quiet. The phones didn't ring. The computers were off, their network, along with the phone wiring, damaged by the fire on the floor below. But the office was open.
I entered and approached the receptionist. Someone had torched the restaurant downstairs, she told me. She gestured to the smoke clearing equipment. 'It still smells pretty bad,' she noted. So I asked about the prescription. I was worried. I knew that the office had converted to digital records some time ago, and now the network was down.
The receptionist left the room, returning with a thick file, dropping it to her desk with a thump. 'We keep a paper backup,' she said, seeing the question in my eyes. Then she took out a piece of notepaper emblazoned with the name of a medical device manufacturer, and wrote down what I wanted. 'I'll take care of it,' she said.
Later I recalled my discussions with the physician who owns the practice, and his concerns about moving to an all-digital environment. He wondered how he'd treat patients if the power went out. I realized now that he had a point. In his case, the patient records were mission-critical information. Without them, he couldn't operate his business, but more important, he'd also be putting his patients in danger.
I knew that we'd talked about solutions to that problem, from stand-by generators and UPS installations, but in reality, they weren't an answer. He depended on his building's owners to provide the power, and if there was to be a standby generator, it would need to come from them. A UPS will last long enough to save data, but not long enough to stay in operation.
In this doctor's case, moving to an all digital environment was a risk he wasn't willing to take, at least without a backup that didn't require being digital.
It was an important lesson because it's frequently glossed over in the conversation about eliminating paper in many industries, including healthcare. What do you do when the power goes out? What do you do when the phones or the network go down without warning? What is your backup? How do you know it will work?
In this case, the backup was paper files, and they worked perfectly. But what's your backup? And how do you know you will be able to meet your mission-critical requirements when something bad happens?