Up in Smoke

A computer system crash can have disastrous results for your office. Here's how one doctor solved the data access and back-up storage dilemma.

by David O'Connor, DMD

With the advent of computer scheduling, digital radiography, financial-management programs, computer checkbooks, and insurance claims via the Internet, it's safe to say that computers have become an integral part of the modern practice. The information stored on these hard drives is one of the most valuable — if not the most valuable — asset of the practice.

Protection of storage and access to this information varies widely from office to office. Tape backup systems, zip disks, mirrored hard drives, CD-ROM storage devices, Internet backup systems, and fire proof safes are only some of the methods practitioners use to preserve their office data bases. However, these solutions do present inherent problems. Fireproof safes have proven to be susceptible to high heat, and the tapes and information inside can be destroyed. A mirrored hard drive would be lost in a fire along with the primary hard drive. Also, if the server's power unit failed, the practitioner would not have access to either of the hard drives until the technician replaced the unit. Home-stored CD-ROMs and zip drives may have the data safely preserved, but when the server is down (fire, power failure, virus, etc.), the office will not have access to key information it needs to function, most importantly the daily schedule. After a crash, operating programs frequently have to be reinstalled and then the data reloaded. This can be both time consuming and difficult and, in an active dental practice, expensive and stressful.

In my office, we have devised a data access/back-up solution that has solved many of these problems. Our back-up system consists entirely of a laptop computer — a Dell Insperion. On this computer, we have installed copies of all the computer programs we currently use. The laptop is connected to the active server via our hub. A small script — essentially a mini program — has been written (Dynamic Computer Systems, Lansing, Mich.) that allows us to click an icon on the laptop and have all the new information that has been entered into the active server in the last 24 hours copied onto the laptop. We do this at the end of every day. Therefore, the laptop is a complete, up-to-date duplicate of the server. The process is quick and usually takes only about eight minutes. We then close the system down and take the laptop home. Should I be at home and need to look up a scheduling question, medical records, or financial information, I can access the office easily by just turning on my portable database.

The other great advantage is that this laptop system provides a solution when the server crashes. Our office computer system communicates via a "hub." Six workstations communicate via this hub, including our digital radiography operatories. The first thing I do when I arrive in the morning is attach the laptop computer to the hub. Using a second script, the laptop is configured in such a way that, in the advent of a power supply failure, hard-disk failure, or hard-disk corruption problem, it can function as the server. If the main server crashes, the staff can immediately go to the computers at the six remote workstations and click on an icon labeled "Failure." The stations now look at my laptop as their primary server. In drills that we conduct twice a year, this conversion process takes two to three minutes. There is virtually no down time. This is particularly crucial since we use a computer scheduling system. If a patient calls, they never hear the words "We can't help you right now because our server is down."

The software on this laptop has been only slightly modified. We have added two small scripts — essentially mini programs — and have made some minor changes to the mapping of the network drives. Many computer companies now allow you to " build your own system." When we chose our model, we were looking for an internal Ethernet card, high clock speed, and hard drive capacity. Weight was a factor but was not considered a crucial element since the computer will be traveling primarily from office to home and back.

I feel this laptop backup system is currently one of the best approaches to protect the office's data base and allow it to function without interruption in the advent of a primary server malfunction.

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