Internet Backup for medical practices

The importance of performing daily backups of clinical data is well understood by medical practices and larger healthcare organisations.

The devastation that befell a number of such organisations as a result of the recent Australian floods and the tragic Christchurch earthquake serves as a telling reminder for the need for robust, off-site backup procedures to be in place. However reflecting on the sheer scale of the recent natural disasters, what a business defines as ‘off-site’ needs to be carefully considered. Any entrenched perceptions that the separation of a backup from the original data by a few kilometres is adequate must surely be challenged in light of recent events.

Fortunately, ongoing improvements to Internet infrastructure now afford medical practices the ability to mitigate the chance of total and catastrophic data loss occurring by leveraging the distributed nature of the Internet.

How does Internet Backup work?

Backups in most medical practices are currently achieved through the utilisation of CDs, DVDs, tapes, USB thumb drives, external hard drives, or a combination of these technologies. Internet backup solutions retain the same principles of redundancy, however instead of utilising a local storage device, practice data is transferred across the Internet, usually to purpose-built data facilities with redundant capacity spread across multiple cities, and potentially across the globe.

While there are a vast array of companies offering Internet backup services, from the users’ perspective they work in much the same way as described below.

Following the installation of some software on the computer to be backed up (usually the practice server), the user specifies the files they wish to backup and schedules the times of day they wish these backups to occur.

Internet backup solutions are typically configured to backup files on a computer system incrementally. This means that only files that have been modified since the last backup occurred are copied to the remote facility, reducing the time a backup takes to execute. To optimise this incremental process even further, some solutions use sophisticated “block level technology”. This technology is designed to detect and upload the discrete parts of large files that have been modified since the last backup, negating the need for the entire file to be re-uploaded.

The first time an Internet backup is performed, all the data the user wants to protect must be uploaded to establish a baseline for subsequent incremental backups. Depending on the speed of the practice’s Internet connection and the amount of data, this may take hours, days or even weeks! However after this first upload has completed, subsequent backups occur in a much more timely fashion. To be considered a viable backup solution, ongoing backups need to be achievable in a matter of 24 hours at most, or the timeliness of the most recent backup will degrade to the point where unacceptable levels of data loss will occur in the event of deletion or corruption of the original data.

As backups are performed, reports are generated listing the files that were backed up and the length of time it took to perform the transfer. This log file should be monitored at frequent intervals to ensure that the backup is being performed reliably. Emails can be sent by most backup software at regular intervals to assist in this monitoring process.

As with all backup systems, frequent audits of the backed up data need to occur to ensure that what is diligently being backed up can successfully be restored.

Is Internet backup secure?

Before transferring your practice data to a remote backup site, it is important that it is encrypted to prevent third parties intercepting the data whilst it is in transit and when stored on the remote server. Encryption is a feature of all popular Internet backup solutions, however the sensitive nature of medical records dictates that practices need to ensure they are properly informed about the type of access the service provider themselves may have to such data — clearly this needs to be none! The privacy policies of the provider should be examined, as should the relevant laws of the country or countries in which the provider locates their data centres.

Considerations

Despite the convenience and additional data protection Internet Backup services provide, there are several factors that practices should consider before adopting such a solution:

  • Practices need to ensure their Internet Service Provider does not count uploaded data toward their monthly quota to avoid excess data charges or bandwidth throttling.
  • The time required and possible Internet data charges associated with restoring a backup in the event of data loss should be calculated and assessed for viability.
  • The time it will take to upload a single day’s worth of new data is important. Practices with large clinical databases may need to consider performing weekly uploads, complemented by their existing daily backup procedures.
  • The number of days of “roll back” provided by the Internet backup solution provider should allow the practice to restore a data “snap shot” from any period in history.

Conclusion

The increasing availability of cheap, fast, reliable Internet access has made Internet backup solutions a viable option for many medical centres, and one that can provide enhanced protection for patient data. While few practices are in a position to move to using the Internet as their only backup medium, a far greater number will find Internet Backup solutions to be a worthwhile complement to their existing backup arrangements.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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