TECH GUIDE - Data Protection Tips for Dental Practices

TECH GUIDE - Data Protection Tips for Dental Practices

How can dentists ensure that any IT disasters will not impact on their operations whilst also guaranteeing that any solution will not affect the efficiency of the practice? Rob Pittack, partner at Portner Pittack Dental Practice, explains the options open to dental practices.

Since computers started to become widely available to small businesses, information technology has been playing a greater role in the way that SMEs operate on a day-to-day basis. This has been happening to such an extent that now most businesses take their IT systems for granted, and don’t appreciate the extent to which they rely on these systems. This means that most practices don’t even stop to think of what could happen if their IT systems suffer a catastrophic failure. For some, a failure in their IT systems might only be an inconvenience, and would not stop them from carrying on working. For others, it may mean that they would be unable to provide their services until the IT systems are brought back online.

For dental practices, the use of software such as Exact from Software of Excellence means that almost every aspect of running a dental surgery is being handled and stored digitally on computers. Clinical notes, patient charts, x-rays, appointment records and contact details are all being held in digital format. For dental practices, this information is vital for effective patient care and for the day-to-day running of the surgery. If a practice were to lose this data, it would mean a critical loss of clinical patient information, contact details and appointment books. The resulting loss of revenue could be severe as it struggles to re-take patient records, setup new appointment books and make bookings, as well as taking new digital x-rays to replace lost ones. Whilst the actual equipment needed to carry out dental procedures will still be available, it will be difficult for practices to make new appointments and find the relevant records for incoming patients.

In my experience, dental practices use a mix of different technologies to back up all of their data. This can include backing up the contents of the entire IT system to tape and external hard disk drives (HDD), as well as backing up to local computers. This needs to be carried out each day; the tapes need to be labeled and swapped correctly, the backup needs to be started to the external HDDs; and the backup of the dental software needs to be done by someone at the end of the day. Even doing this isn’t enough, as the tapes have to be taken offsite every day, and ideally need to be stored in a fireproof box. Practices that implement business continuity solutions of this sort do so under the assumption that should something happen to their IT systems, they will be able to use the backup tapes to restore their data and carry out their business as normal, with as little downtime as possible.

Unfortunately, in the case of business continuity solutions, the expectations don’t always match the reality. Most dental practices don’t realise this, as it is only on very rare occasions that they will be called on to put their disaster recovery solution into effect. However, speaking from experience, the majority of business continuity solutions implemented in-house by the businesses themselves simply don’t work the way they should. The most basic error is that many practices do not carry out a test restore. So the first they know that there is a problem with the backup is when they have to use it for real and they find that their data is not there or is not recoverable. Even if someone manages the tape backup in the correct way, the tapes can’t be used if the hardware needed to access them has become unusable. This can be caused due to a number of factors, from the servers themselves overheating, to a fire or flooding in the surgery, to theft of the equipment itself. This means that the same equipment will need to be purchased again in order for the tapes to be accessible. It can take days to get a business up and running from the backup tapes, which can seriously affect revenue and reputation – patients may simply choose another surgery if they are unable to make an appointment. Even if the servers are still intact, the process of restoring the data usually takes far longer than anticipated. A more likely situation is that the tapes themselves haven’t been backed up properly, either due to someone simply forgetting to swap them regularly, or by not storing them properly when they take them offsite.

The problem faced by many dental practices who may want to upgrade their data backup solutions is that they simply don’t know what to look for. Dentists need to be able to have a reliable system and by using an online backup provider they don’t need to worry that the backup gets forgotten. In the case of data backup and business continuity, this takes pressure off in-house staff who would be tasked with backing up the practice’s data, and it means they don’t have to worry whether the systems are working properly or if someone has remembered to swap the backup tapes. If you outsource your backup process it means that whoever is providing the solution will be testing it regularly, ensuring that if anything does go wrong that it will actually work and will protect your practice and patient data. The testing of a disaster recovery solution is a very time consuming process, which goes some way to explain why many in-house solutions don’t end up working when they need to.

Once you’ve decided to outsource your business continuity requirements, you need to look closely at the solution on offer. Firstly, it is vital to look for a data backup provider who will store your data in the UK. In the event of a disaster, it can be much more difficult if you’re a UK based business to recover data that has been backed up in the USA, for example. It is also worthwhile to actually speak to the provider you are considering, and to discuss your needs. This will help you to decide how well they will be able to help you in the event of a disaster. It is easy for providers to confuse you with computing terms that you’re not familiar with, but it is more sensible to put your faith in someone who can discuss everything in language that you understand. If a company is hiding behind technical terms and won’t give you a straight answer, then it may be best to look elsewhere. A final point is with regards to cost. If a deal looks too good to be true, then in all likelihood it is. Even when outsourcing data backup, if you cut corners by going with the least expensive provider, you could end up paying in the long run if it means that you can’t get your data back.

We evaluated a number of providers on the market but ultimately chose Cloud Direct to provide our data backup solution. The service works by storing multiple copies of our data in a series of secure data centres through our existing internet connection. The data is automatically encrypted and backed up on a regular basis without any staff having to intervene. If anything happens to the in-house servers, new ones can be installed within two days, complete with all of our data. One of the most useful features we have used Cloud Direct for has been to restore Word or Excel files that have been deleted accidentally- this has saved hours of having to redo complicated spreadsheets or important documents and practice procedure. The process of restoring these files is easy and the support we have had has been great. Not only are we protected from a major disaster such as fire or flood we are also protected from the delete button. This type of solution offers much less downtime than our previous in-house method. You should seriously question a provider who can’t offer a lower level of downtime than your existing solution in the event of a disaster. A final point to make is that whatever solution you use, it should be compatible with the software used by your practice. If your practice uses Exact for example, and an outsourcing provider doesn’t offer a solution that has been tailored to work with this software, then you will need to look somewhere else.

Business continuity and data backup solutions may be at the bottom of the list of priorities for many dental practice owners or may not even be on their list at all, especially if they already have an in-house solution in place. It is only when IT systems stop working that data backup solutions shoot up the priority list. Having an effective disaster recovery solution is like having an insurance policy against an IT related disaster, so that if anything does go wrong, you know that you are covered. It can provide peace of mind for practice owners and staff who have to manage the in-house disaster recovery solutions, and can also make your practice more efficient, letting your staff focus on what they do best. Whatever provider you choose, you need to make sure that they can provide a solution like Cloud Direct have provided for us – something that is tailored to the needs of a dental practice, and which will actually streamline your practice, rather than encumber it with technology it doesn’t need.

Rob Pittack

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