Health IT

Hurricane Sandy proves the value of health IT infrastructure, state info exchanges

New York City hospitals’ healthcare IT systems were severely tested in the grips of one of the worst storms to hit the city. Hurricane Sandy will serve as a reminder of the importance of having electronic medical records and access to a healthcare information exchange. For some hospitals, it will offer valuable lessons on data storage logistics and how their IT networks (and back-up generators) perform in a crisis.

New York University Langone Medical Center was forced to evacuate midstorm after a transformer explosion cut power to Lower Manhattan and back-up generators failed. The event prompted a tongue lashing from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In another borough, Staten Island University’s hospitals in the North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System relied on paper-based records when power to the building where its data center is located (on the seventh floor) was shut down because of flooding.

Looking back seven years, Hurricane Katrina became the storm that demonstrated the need for digital health records because so many paper-based medical records were lost, said New York eHealth Collaborative Executive Director David Whitlinger. When the flood waters inundated hospitals, their patients’ medical histories pretty much vanished. Now, Hurricane Sandy could be the storm that underscores the importance of having a health information exchange and a tested emergency plan.

New York’s SHIN-NY health information exchange connects 78 percent of hospitals in the state. Patients evacuated to other providers because of lost power or flooding would still have medical information accessible in the network that details drug prescriptions and past medical tests, for example. Whitlinger noted that although one SHIN-NY data center is in New York, another “fully redundant” data center is in Texas and could have taken over “within milliseconds” had its New York unit failed.


“What we have heard across the [past few] days is as patients have been moving from one hospital to another, there is a great benefit of being connected to a health information exchange,” Whitlinger said in a phone interview.

For Whitlinger, the storm’s impact on hospitals’ data centers in the region underlined the relatively short amount of time since the industry began the shift to digitizing records. It also called attention to how the healthcare industry has historically underspent on health IT relative to other industries. For some providers, the storm will be a source of some instructive insights not only on how they back up their data but where they store it.

Staten Island’s two hospitals were just a couple of the providers that lost their data center. North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System runs the two hospitals that make up Staten Island University Hospital’s north and south campuses. Doug Torre, vice president of information technology at the health system, spoke to MedCity News as he was helping to bring the data center back online. He acknowledged the usefulness of the state’s health information exchange for patients being shuttled between hospitals and of providing a point-in-time snapshot of patients’ health. But he added that “running an active operational support system for a hospital requires a lot more than that,” such as lab tests, radiology tests and administering information.

Many providers across the country will be taking a hard look at how New York hospitals performed under such stressful circumstances. They might assess what they have overlooked in their own institutions and reexamine their own data storage back-up plans and the merits of alternative plans. But beyond that, they will take NYU’s experience and use it as an instructive reminder to be vigilant about ensuring their own back-up plans work before they are put to the test.

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