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Highlights | Planning for the unexpected

  • From earthquakes to pandemics, many disasters can significantly impact healthcare systems.
  • Business continuity planning is how system operations stay afloat during a disaster.
  • UW Medicine is constantly reviewing its plans to ensure we can care for patients in the wake of a major business-disrupting event.

In healthcare, the unexpected happens every day. From paging systems going down to major power outages, you never know when problems will hit. Preparing for the unexpected is essential to continue providing the best possible care in any scenario. That’s why UW Medicine is constantly reviewing and updating its business continuity plans.

What is business continuity planning?

According to Danica Little, preparedness director for UW Medicine, a business continuity plan details “how to keep systems operational and continue to meet the needs of our patients following any event that disrupts normal operational activities.” This could be in response to an earthquake, major power disruption, pandemic, cybersecurity issue or any other unexpected internal or external situation.

Business continuity planning is continuous. It’s something that our organization is constantly looking at and analyzing for different scenarios, with the goal of preserving the health of the business so that we can continue to provide care for our community.

Why is business continuity planning essential?

Being able to continue providing patient care in any scenario requires us to have a plan for adequate staffing and access to records, medical devices and other healthcare equipment.

Just like during the pandemic, health systems had to plan for how to safely care for patients, including entry screening, pre-procedure testing, expanded use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and offering more virtual care options. In other types of disasters, like a major power outage, we plan for how to manage patient care and data if we don’t have access to our usual electronic tools.

“We’ve been using electronic health records for so long that fewer and fewer of us remember how to operate in a paper world, and honestly, why would we when technology does so many wonderful things for us?” says Eric Neil, chief information officer for UW Medicine. “This reliance on technology puts us at risk if systems were down due to an earthquake, cyber event or other cause. We applaud the great work being done in the hospitals and clinics and with our Emergency Preparedness office to enhance the plans they have to continue operations if systems were to become unavailable.”

How does UW Medicine prepare?

Executive staff, Information Technology teams and other collaborators across the system work together to update and review existing plans and create new ones as needed.

“Making sure that we have robust systems and plans in place is of the utmost importance when it comes to preparing for situations that may have long- or short-term impacts on system operations,” says Louise Simpson, associate vice president for Clinical Integration and Transformation at UW Medicine. “We take business continuity planning very seriously and are constantly reviewing to ensure we can provide the best possible care to patients under any circumstances.”

Editor’s Note: Jeff Sconyers, JD, teaching professor emeritus, School of Public Health, University of Washington, consulted on this article.