Protecting your digital data

In my travels across the country, I have seen many offices transitioning to a more modern, "chartless" practice.

In my travels across the country, I have seen many offices transitioning to a more modern, "chartless" practice. Dentists are spending the necessary time to evaluate their data management systems, and they understand the process of choosing new digital components for their practice. However, many offices still are not taking the appropriate steps to protect this increasingly crucial data. While I briefly visited this topic in a past column, it is important to review the steps that should be taken to ensure that the data is safe.

Which type of media?

In the past, the choice of which type of media to use was fairly easy to make. Back in the days of DOS, 1.44 MB floppy drives were more than adequate, and all your data could be stored on a single disk. As servers became a part of smaller offices, many computer technicians began installing the systems they were familiar with in the corporate world: tape drives. A large number of practices are still using these drives. Unfortunately, I do not feel that they are appropriate for the majority of offices. First, the software and methods for verifying the backup are confusing to many dentists and staff. It is all too common to have a server fail. Then, the office discovers backups have not been properly run for months and, in some cases, the tapes have become corrupted. Secondly, I have yet to see an office with more than one computer (the server) with a tape drive. One of the goals of the backup is to have a quick and easy method to restore the practice's data and get the office up and running with minimal downtime. If the server crashes and the only backup is on a tape, that tape will have minimal value, since there is no other computer in the office capable of reading the tape.

Recommended protocol

To effectively back up the practice's important information, a number of factors need to be taken into consideration.

1) Automatic: As the databases increase in size due to imaging and other data bloat, the time needed to back up increases every day. While the process should be easy to perform, busy dentists and staff often don't have the time to wait for the backup to finish. Some offices can circumvent this by backing up during the day, but many practice-management and image-management programs lock the data that is open, thus preventing the copy from occurring until all workstations have logged out of the software. In my opinion, the best backup is one that happens automatically, every day, with little to no input from anyone in the office.

2) Easy to set up and verify: The key concept here is to use software that makes it simple to establish the timetable for the backup and makes it easy to see if the backup was completed. We recommend a free software program called "Karen's Replicator," which allows you to establish the backup time for every day of the week (and exclude the weekends if you prefer). The program will show a screen as soon as the backup is complete, indicating if the backup was successful.

3) The right media: As I discussed, tape drives are not the ideal any more. Rewriteable CD drives were an option for a short period of time, but their 750 MB capacity limits their usefulness in most dental offices. Rewriteable DVDs are an option for offices that don't use any digital imaging (they can record close to 5 GB of data), but they are relatively slow. The best option for most offices are external hard drives. These drives typically have 80 to 250 GB of storage, use an easy-to-use USB interface, and are light enough to be carried in a bag or briefcase.

4) Backup protocol: I suggest that offices have a minimum of two external drives, one that is on-site and one that is off-site, so there always is at least one copy of the most recent data away from the office. I also suggest that the server's data be copied to at least one workstation to allow for another level of security.

As practices continue to digitize data that was once part of a paper-based system, it is vital to have a well-designed system to not only back up this important information, but also one which is easy to implement and verify on a daily basis.

Lorne Lavine, DMD, practiced periodontics and implant dentistry for more than 10 years. He is an A+ certified computer repair technician, as well as Network+ certified. He is the president of Dental Technology Consultants, a company that assists dentists in all phases of technology integration in the dental practice. He can be contacted by email at drlavine@thedigitaldentist.com or by phone at (866) 204-3398. Visit his Web site at www.thedigitaldentist.com.

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