At Joplin Hospital and Data Center, Speed Boosts Tornado Recovery

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The first thing Mike McCreary had to do was make sure his IT team in Joplin, Mo. was alive and well. After that came the daunting task of connecting a community left devastated and without power or phone lines from a near-record tornado to its vital medical data, past and present.

It has been almost three weeks since a deadly EF-5 tornado ripped through Joplin, and the scope of damage remains hard to comprehend.

“You don’t expect to lose the entire city when you do disaster planning,” McCreary says.

McCreary, chief of services for Mercy Technology Services, oversees about 1,300 applications in the IT portfolio at Mercy’s hospital system, which includes St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin. St. John’s and its adjacent data center were among the numerous buildings and homes completely destroyed in the May 22 storm that killed more than 140 people.

McCreary and hospital executives were in contact with officials in Joplin via satellite and text messages hours after the tornado hit, initiating the first step in the data recovery process. He and his St. Louis-based department were at the site of the devastation early the next morning, and had accounted for the safety of many IT and hospital staff, 200 in all, evacuated along with 183 patients before the tornado struck.

Data Recovery and Operations

The next step was gathering patient records and assessing the destroyed data center and hospital. The nine-story hospital building still stands, but is unusable, and the nearby 1,200-square-foot data center was “a total loss,” McCreary says.

Fortunately, the vast majority of patient data, hospital records keeping, registration scheduling and pharmacy applications had been migrated only weeks before to a shared hospital data center offsite.

Click here to read sidebar story, "Planning Keeps Joplin Hospital Data Online"

But it was another matter altogether to import that information back to makeshift hospital facilities set up in tents and a school in an area with little electricity or communications.

Because of the level of destruction, McCreary admits that some planning took place “on the fly,” but worked well and provided valuable information for future planning. Text messages were used to connect IT and hospital staff, microwave satellite transmissions were used to transmit and receive data and voice communications, and executives worked with IT and medical staff to borrow equipment from other Mercy facilities that would properly transmit and safeguard patient data from mobile locations to the shared data center.

As per Mercy’s disaster recovery plan, enough generators were brought in to make hospital facilities the first in the city back in functioning order.

“We had a 60-bed mobile medical unit a week after the tornado hit, fully outfitted with our systems,” he says, adding that much of the hospital and city remains relegated to generator power.

The onsite data center that was ruined housed a few dozen legacy servers, imaging equipment and older patient information sources that were not mission critical and had not yet been migrated to the larger, shared hospital system center.

The hardware is useless, but McCreary is hopeful the recovery process can turn up historical data from the backup tapes and drives from machines racked by winds and rubble. Hospital officials are still awaiting approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to enter parts of the hospital to access microfilm and microfiche backup files of data from 2005 and before, according to St. John’s patient information officer Tracy Clark.

Disaster Planning Versus “The Truth”

Moving forward, McCreary says data recovery efforts are ongoing for the hardware from the St. John’s data center and all hospital information from any future Joplin hospital will likely be stored and backed up at St. Louis and Washington, Missouri facilities. Medical operations will move from the tents of the field hospital to modular units as hospital officials comb through the limited usable space currently available in Joplin for a new hospital. During this process, McCreary and IT officials have kept data and applications up smoothly from the temporary hospital and are involved in discussions with executives on the future of a Joplin medical center.

Amid the successful continuation of hospital operations after the catastrophic tornado, McCreary has changed his outlook on the risk-versus-finance argument often integral in disaster planning.

“We have folks reevaluating our disaster planning to measure theories against realities, to now understand the gaps between what our disaster plan was and how it stacks up against the truth,” McCreary says. “Coming out of this, God forbid we ever have anything like this happen again, we will be more ready for it.”

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