It can happen in seconds: a few wrong keystrokes and — zap! Days or even weeks of precious medical and financial data vanish from your computer system.
And it can happen spontaneously, without anyone doing anything at all.
It's only a small problem if you have a copy of your current data. But if you don't, brace yourself for some serious damage. Expect to lose thousands of dollars and spend hundreds of hours restoring the data by hand from written records, say physicians and consultants who have been there.
There's only one way to protect against such disasters. Back up data every day, or risk being crippled, perhaps at the worst possible moment.
"Backing up needs to be a habit," says Todd Humphrey, vice president of Pace Financial, a Rochester, Minn.-based practice management system vendor. "It's like dealing with the IRS. Someday it's going to audit you, and you need to prepare yourself."
Perhaps you assume you're safe unless struck by fire, flood or other act of God. Actually, human error is the most common cause of data loss, consultants say. Particularly in smaller practices without a full-time computer expert on-site, it's easy for a well-intentioned person to make mincemeat out of virtually irreplaceable data. Even if no one makes a data-deleting misstep, you can bet that every hard disk will crash eventually, notes Robert Bergstrom, vice president of the Minneapolis-based Kaleidoscope Health Systems, a management services organization with 89 physician clients in 11 practices.
Bergstrom still cringes when recalling the time his own disk drive — which wasn't backed up --went south almost a decade ago. Since then, he's backed up his clients' and his own data daily, storing backup tapes offsite. Left to themselves, Bergstrom suggests, client practices might not bother.
"Physicians seem to be aware of the problem, but it isn't the primary thing they're worried about," he says. "I don't think they understand what the effect on their practices would be if they lost all of their data."
Given the often staggering costs incurred through data loss, practices should make data backup a top priority. Groups spend an average of 21 days and $19,000 to retype just 20 megabytes of accounting information, according to one data industry estimate.
And that's not the only price to pay. Not only will the practice struggle through weeks of data restoration, but it will also have long-term vulnerabilities.
Months or years later, you may still be wondering how accurate your records are. "Putting all of that information in correctly is very difficult when you're in a hurry," notes Cristi Iannuzzi, vice president of marketing for the Atlanta-based practice management software vendor MicroMed Healthcare Information Systems Inc.
Iannuzzi, who ran a radiology practice for 12 years, backed up her group's data every business day, always copying to a separate tape.
But many practice managers do not follow through with this crucial step. Impatient with the process, which usually requires that they shut down the whole computer system, many physician offices tend to put off backups until disaster strikes.
Even practices that regularly back up their data don't do it often enough, notes Doran Dunaway, a practice consultant in Champaign, Ill., who works with the Medical Group Management Association: "Groups may back up data weekly or monthly, but they may not understand that if there's a problem, they've lost everything since they've backed up."
Earlier this year, one seven-doctor practice learned that lesson the hard way. The physicians, who stored all of their personal accounting and payroll information on a single desktop computer, lost weeks of work when one of the partners accidentally deleted the current data.
The group had a backup — but it was 30 days old. Staff members were forced to enter the payroll and accounting data all over again.
"The ramifications were major," says Dunaway. "They lost W-2 information. They lost accounts payable, so they didn't have a clue as to what they actually owed. They had to just accept whatever vendors told them, and they're probably still trying to recover."
What if you're ready to back up data religiously, but are not a computer whiz?
Don't worry. Backing up files needn't be very difficult or inconvenient. Good practice management software packages and some computer operating systems will back up files automatically if they are set correctly, notes Humphrey of Pace Financial.
If your group is part of a larger practice or association of practices with a common computer network, it may be possible to back up and store data off-site. Network operating systems can be set to copy data — including data from off-site computers — overnight. Have your group practice administrator find out whether a backup system is already in place.
If a network connects all the desktop computers in your office to one another, they're probably all tied to a single shared computer known as a file server. Physicians can move their most critical data and files to that server, and the practice management system can be set to copy all file server information to a tape drive designed for that purpose. Pace Financial's product, named "Ideal," is but one example. It runs on an IBM AS400, a more expensive and powerful computer than the desktop models that are more common. The AS400, with its own internal tape drive, can back up data automatically.
The job often can be done as easily with ordinary computers and off-the-shelf software. Buying a tape drive for a few hundred dollars and a handful of tapes could be the only investment necessary for some offices. But if the office computers are not all on a network, buying individual drives would be necessary --again, at modest cost.
Remember, even the newest, fastest computer can founder, Bergstrom warns. "I tell my clients that eventually their computers will fail. If you think you have the best computer in the world and it's never going to fail, you're wrong."