Along the coast of South Carolina, Beaufort Memorial waits out the storm

Beaufort (S.C.) Memorial Hospital is in an idyllic setting for almost any other time than this. But in the next 24 to 48 hours, it will be buffeted by the winds and storm surge of Hurricane Matthew.

The facility lies directly north of Hilton Head Island, serving the Sea Islands of South Carolina, a few miles from the head of the Harbor River, where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s right in the path of Matthew, which as of Friday morning is battering the coast of Florida as a Stage 3 hurricane.

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While the storm’s winds may weaken a bit by the time it reaches South Carolina, rising water levels and heavy rains could pose significant risks to life and the ability of Beaufort Memorial to operate.

In anticipation of the dangerous weather, the facility is no longer services, after state officials decided the situation was too dangerous for the hospital to remain open during the storm, said Edward Ricks, its vice president and CIO.

“Thursday afternoon, the state health department essentially forced our hand and had us evacuate all patients and close our ED,” Ricks said Friday morning. “So we worked until about 3 a.m. Friday morning coordinating transfers and transport for the approximately 70 patients still here. I’m happy to say that through a great effort and spirit of cooperation, all patients have been evacuated.”


Ricks, whose home is only a quarter mile down the road from the hospital, will be staying at the facility over the course of the storm. “Some of us are still staying behind so that we can immediately open as soon as the storm passes.”

Before the state’s action, we queried Ricks about the preparations that were underway to ensure the continuance of IT services and operations of the hospital. Here are his responses to questions in the hours before the storm’s anticipated impact on South Carolina.

How could the hospital potentially be impacted by the hurricane? Has it been hit by hurricanes or other events of nature before, and what lessons were learned from those events?
Beaufort Memorial is actually located on the shores of the Intracoastal Waterway in Beaufort, S.C. We are clearly at risk for hurricanes and other weather events. While it has been a number of years, we have had to evacuate patients in the past. I would say the most important lesson learned is to have a good safety plan in place and practice how you respond often so that when the event is real, you have already thought of ways to overcome obstacles.

Are you doing anything special to prepare for this event, particularly in regard to keeping your information systems up and running? Is there a hierarchy of systems that you expect to maintain if at all possible?
Our current IT environment consists of two replicated data centers on campus and a third disaster recovery location that is safe geographically from the coast. The disaster recovery location essentially has complete backups of our data that is updated in near real time throughout the day. We cannot operate from that site at this time, but could recover systems in the event that we totally lose both on-campus data centers.

More than ever, healthcare IT executives must be prepared for interruptions in service that take electronic health records and other information systems offline. Recovery plans often cover short-term crises, such as power failures, technology crashes or security-based interruptions. But hospitals also must have plans for catastrophic failures, such as the 2011 tornado that destroyed Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Mo. Here, the organization shares its experiences.
November 10

Our hospital is on full generator and we have the capability to remain at full power for over seven days in the event that we lose electricity. But even with that infrastructure, we are prepared to print current patient information and go to downtime procedures to care for the patients in the hospital if needed.

Our focus is to maintain service to our primary EMR and our telephony system, but the goal is to keep all systems functioning as long as possible. We do have backup telephony in place that is not dependent on our IT infrastructure.

As CIO, what other responsibilities do you bear for your organization in emergency situations? How would you describe your work life over this span of time?
Since IT has become embedded in many functions of the healthcare environment, it is even more important to have a solid infrastructure, and redundancy of as many systems as possible. It is my responsibility to make sure that we can provide the service and support to care for our patients and keep communications open for the safety and security of our staff, patients and visitors.

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The bulk of the work is in advance planning and preparation, although the intensity of planning has certainly escalated over the last few days. As an administrative team, we have spent many hours this week on conference calls with our state hospital association and state health department discussing capabilities and plans. While we have worked long days in preparation this week, the storm is still a few hours away. We fully expect to be in the hospital for the next two to three days without an ability to leave.

What, if any, healthcare IT burdens do you expect to pick up from the surrounding community? Will you need to do anything different in order to provide information support outside the hospital's walls?
While we are picking up some patients from other facilities that have closed, I do not expect any additional IT burden from the community.

What are your top two IT concerns? Professional concerns? Personal concerns?
The main professional and personal concern for all of us is, of course, the safety of our families, our patients and the staff who are staying behind to provide care. From an IT perspective, we just hope to maintain connectivity to the outside and communications capabilities inside.

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