A business lesson from 9/11/01: Is your practice really disaster-proof?

Do your crisis-managing before it happens

Despite the evidence from Sept. 11 that we’re now living in a different world from just a few months ago, relatively few medical practices have taken the time to think through and make contingency plans should their office be directly affected by a nearby disaster — natural or man-made.

About one of four small businesses forced to shut down due to a disaster never reopens, estimates Diana McClure, a consultant with the Tampa, FL-based Institute of Business and Home Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by the insurance industry.

Like these organizations, few physicians have developed disaster contingency plans, which should include such elements as keeping copies of key records at another site or knowing how to contact staff during an emergency to deal with disasters that temporarily disrupt or close their practice, notes Patricia Thorp, president of Thorp & Co., a crisis management firm in Coral Gables, FL.

Making a plan

Disasters can range from an explosion in your office building or having all your electronic files eliminated by a computer virus (see related story, p. 179) to something that happens miles away, like a flood or storm that shuts down the roads leading to your office. It could even happen to someone else entirely, such as your medical supply or prescription drug vendors, but a disaster that affects them would, in turn, affect your practice.

Rather than trying to think of every possible kind of disaster that could happen, the best approach to planning for an emergency is to answer the question, "How can I integrate any sort of business interruption into the way I do business?" advises McClure.

After his practice was disrupted by the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, Eric Tabas, MD, decided it was time to draw up a basic disaster plan for his office. His plan is as follows:

  • Close the office.
  • Have contact numbers available to inform employees to stay home.
  • Put a message on voice mail informing patients that the office is closed.
  • Go to a hospital to help care for injured people.

McClure recommends physicians consider the following questions when developing a disaster-response plan:

— What sort of disasters or hazards could shut down my practice?

— How long can my practice be shut down without completely depleting its financial reserves?

— How would I contact my employees and patients?

— How would I contact them if the phone lines were down?

— Is there an alternate site where I could temporarily run my practice?

— What are the most vital practice functions that must be attended to?

— What supplies and prescription drugs do I absolutely need?

— What vital records and data should I keep copies of off-site?

— What disasters does my business insurance cover?

— Do I need business interruption insurance?

"Designing a response plan doesn’t have to be that complicated. It just takes a little bit of time and thought," stresses McClure. "Today, it is just good business to have a disaster plan on file."

(Editor’s note: For more information on disaster planing, visit the following web sites: