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Disaster Recovery Can Be a Life-Saver
By Judy Smith

As healthcare organizations shift from paper to electronic records, continuous system and data availability is essential to maintain high-quality patient care and foster effective facilities administration. Not long ago, most healthcare data originated on paper or another physical medium. Organizations often retained their documents even after their data were entered into an online database. This enabled the manual recovery of destroyed electronic data from the source documents, if necessary. Although it was a burdensome, lengthy process that every organization preferred to avoid, at least it was possible.

Now times have changed. In many cases, medical and administrative information never really exists in physical form. Instead, it is created and stored solely in an electronic format, eliminating the need to manually recover it from source documents. It is in this environment that the need for data security and protection is more important than ever, particularly in an industry like healthcare where HIPAA regulations require the protection of data.

Tape Backups: Not the Ideal Solution
Because systems fail infrequently and disasters almost never occur, many people are not fully cognizant of the potential for data loss and system unavailability. There is a common misconception that as long as data are backed up nightly to tapes that are shipped off site, operations are fully protected.

That is not the case because tape-based backups suffer from several deficiencies. For one, lengthy recovery times can result in extensive downtime after databases are destroyed. Furthermore, if online data are lost, some may be unrecoverable if tape-based backups are the only recovery option.

Backup tapes are typically created only once every 24 hours, usually at night. Data that are added or updated during the day are not stored on any backup tapes until the following night. If a disaster destroys the online databases and any associated on-site journals, that day’s data may be unrecoverable.

Timing is not the only problem with tape backups. Frequently, backup tapes are not shipped off site until some time the next day. If a disaster strikes while the most recent tape is still in the data center, it may be destroyed along with the online data. In that case, two days’ worth of data may be lost. Additionally, tape is a more fallible medium than a disk. If the most recent backup tape is unreadable when it is required, that also will result in the loss of an additional day’s worth of data.

In today’s electronic environment, it is essential to have a solution that couples high availability with a disaster-recovery technology that is more robust than traditional tape-based backups. The health and lives of patients may depend on it.

The Need for Real-Time Replication of All Data
One organization that understands this need and has implemented such a system is the Jackson Clinic Professional Association. Established in 1950 by five medical and surgical specialists, the Jackson Clinic now includes the expertise of more than 130 physicians in 25 specialties and subspecialties to serve patients in nine locations across western Tennessee.

The clinic employs state-of-the-art healthcare information technologies. All patient medical records, including chart information, x-rays, MRI images, and appointments, are stored digitally. This information no longer has to be distributed in physical form. Instead, as soon as it becomes available, all patient medical data are immediately accessible by any personnel who need it and are authorized to see it—all with a few clicks of a keyboard and a mouse.

While electronic records streamline the flow of vital medical and administrative information and eliminate the possibility of misplaced documents and images, they also need to be completely protected against any loss. There is, after all, no paper backup.

The Jackson Clinic met this challenge by creating a highly available disaster recovery environment using EchoStream for AIX. With this technology in place, the clinic transparently maintains a real-time replica of all critical data on a second server. Whenever necessary, data can be recovered quickly from this second environment.

Continuous Data Protection
When considering data-protection issues, most organizations overlook another common threat to their information, one that cannot be overcome using either tape-based backups or traditional real-time replication. The problem is that both tape-based backups and traditional replication solutions allow for data recovery solely to a single point in time. Tape-based backups allow data to be recovered only to its state when the tape was created, which is typically sometime during the previous night. With traditional replication, which maintains a real-time replica of all data, it’s possible to recover information to its state at the point of failure, but recovery to a previous state is impossible.

A further risk arises because not all threats to data integrity halt systems. For example, if an operator accidentally deletes a critical file or a virus corrupts some data records, healthcare applications and business systems may continue running. In fact, if replication software does its job, it will immediately replicate that deletion or corruption to the backup system, corrupting it in the same manner. Recovering the data from the previous night’s backup tapes is a possibility, provided the backup doesn’t already include the corruption or deletion. However, such recovery would not restore updates applied to the data after the tape backup was created.

The Jackson Clinic overcame this vulnerability with the continuous data protection (CDP) functionality built into EchoStream. CDP augments a traditional replication solution by creating a replica of data and storing copies of individual changes made to that data throughout the day. By storing individual changes, not just the end state of data, CDP can “dial back” data to any point in time. In this way, it works like a systemwide “undo” facility.

A Strategic Necessity
A healthcare organization’s mission is to provide quality patient care. Integrating clinical practice, state-of-the-art technology, and research plays an important role in fulfilling this mission. Moreover, EMR systems help healthcare providers to streamline procedures, reduce errors, and lower costs. But the elimination of physical documents demands the deployment of sophisticated disaster-recovery technologies to fulfill HIPAA regulations and deliver a safe and secure environment that all stakeholders—regulators, medical practitioners, administrators, staff, patients, and family members—want and expect. Lives depend on it.

— Judy Smith is a senior product marketing manager for Vision Solutions, an Irvine, Calif.-based technology company that specializes in data-recovery systems. She has more than 25 years of experience on midrange and mainframe systems, with extensive expertise in backup/recovery and storage technologies.