Big Lessons about Big Data and Disaster Recovery in Healthcare

Joel D. Freeman
By
March 14, 2013
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Big Data tops the list of the newest sources of potential disaster faced by healthcare organizations. Doctors and hospitals are great when it comes to dealing with disaster on a personal, physical level. They’ve had years of practice (pardon the pun). Not so much with data, however.

Whether they like it or not, healthcare’s widespread adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) puts providers squarely in the realm of Big Data, where many people rely on continuous, uninterrupted data and processing coming from a variety of sources, including historical records. A system hiccup can lead to consequences affecting individuals and organizations alike.

In an EHR-driven world, data disaster preparedness requires more than the right mix of skills and technologies. First, it takes systems thinking. Treating the symptoms alone will not ease the pain. In a patient-centric integrated EHR, data flows continuously, helping inform decision-making on multiple levels simultaneously from medication allergies to compliance matters. In other words, stop the flow of data, stop the (fill in the blank with whatever you’re working on).

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) studied specialty chemical manufacturing as a model of healthcare IT for their “Quality Chasm” series of reports. In chemical manufacturing, complex automated systems run nonstop. Adverse events must be addressed instantly. A single instrument failure can be fatal, even leading to regional catastrophe. A manual sequential shutdown might do, but that may not be possible. Instead, chemical processors find comfort in redundancy, where every device, network, and data point exists and operates more or less in duplicate, simultaneously. A failing device or system is sidetracked for its functioning counterpart, ensuring uninterrupted operations. Tragedy averted.

Under this paradigm, “backup” refers to much more than data. It means you also have a backup system ready to take over in milliseconds. When that backup system takes over, you have “recovery.” That system could—and should—be anywhere, but the location for backup data and systems isn’t nearly as important as its accessibility, keeping the connection between patient and medical record open and unhindered.

Once upon a time, the input, management, and use of data were the province of the few. Not healthcare organizations, not today. More than anywhere else on Earth, every person involved is likely to touch that data, add to it, and make decisions based on what the system provides. That means we now have yet another component to consider: people.

The people who use your data are an integral part of the system. Now that we have new definitions for backup and recovery, they need to know and they need to be included in whatever new contingencies you develop for meeting the challenges of Big Data. Not doing so could be disastrous.

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via Compfight cc