Why and how should I back up my practice data?

July 1, 2011
Dr. Donald P. Lewis Jr. tells you the questions you should ask and how to get started backing up data.

by Donald P. Lewis Jr., DDS, CFE

For more on this topic, go to www.dentaleconomics.com and search using the following key words: back up practice data, practice-management software, Dr. Donald P. Lewis.

There are many myths and inconsistencies around the actual practice of backing up your computer system’s data. Practice-management software support groups experience these questions regularly. Here are the best practices I recommend for practitioners to run a safe, secure backup process that takes no time — and complies with current and future mandates regarding secure electronic records.

We have all been there! After hours of work and effort, the project that you have been working on is finally complete. Then you forget to save the file, all your hard work is lost, and the project needs to be restarted. What a sinking feeling!

Imagine the horror that you would feel if you lost all of your practice data — patient records, financial accounts, inventory lists, payroll information, and more. Then, to make matters even worse, you realize that either you have not been doing your computer backups, or your backup system is not functioning properly. After a panic meltdown, where would you turn at this point?

One of the first questions we are often asked at the customer service center is: “How do I back up my computer data?”

It can feel silly to ask this seemingly basic question, but we realize that this is not a ridiculous question. In fact, the reasons that most practices do not back up data are:

1. Practices do not realize the importance
2. They do not know how to do so
3. They think they do not have time to implement a “costly, time-consuming process”

Implementing a best-practice electronic backup process is not a luxury you can afford to ignore. It is essential to the financial well-being of your practice. Even further, HIPAA requirements and meaningful use certification around electronic health records may soon mandate secure off-site backup.

So first, let’s look at what it means to back up your practice computers.

Backing up your computer system is exactly what it sounds like: you are simply making a copy of your program files and associated data. But that is only the first step.

Simply backing up your data is not sufficient; you must keep a copy in a safe and secure place, preferably outside the physical confines of your office. So, a backup for practices needs to include not only copying data, but also programs, settings, and the operating system.

Backing up can seem complicated when you look at the amount of information that needs to be secured, how much to back up — and most importantly — how and when to back up. But the assumption that eBackup is costly or time-consuming is a myth!

The goal is simple: back up your computer and associated data to protect your practice. If something should ever happen to your office or system and you can no longer access data, then you can always reconstruct your system from a “backup.”

Most people do not consider how often this happens. But consider the friends and colleagues you know who have had to replace a hard drive in a personal computer. Most of us know someone who has gone through this, or we have experienced it multiple times.

When this happens, you are in a helpless predicament. Data loss can put your practice out of commission for days or even weeks. Fortunately, though, the solution is also simple: if you are backed up, you can usually continue operations as long as you have functional computers.

The right questions will establish the right process

When setting up a backup process, ask the following questions so you will keep on a productive path to achieve the right backup for your practice:

How do I get started?

The first step is copying your data. When you think about this, it should be simple. Backing up data is very basic. In your practice, you need to back up more than just your data. In case of a disaster, you will need to reconstruct all of your information. This type of backup has one goal: it creates a functional copy to be stored on an off-site server. If your data is located in the same location as your computer, then you are not securely backed up. This begs the next question.

Where should I store my data?

The best answer is just common sense. Copy your data to a server that is outside the walls of your practice. The further, the better, especially in light of the fact that disaster can strike at any time and can affect your geographic region.

Again, if your data is in only one place, and there are no copies, then you are not backed up properly.

When and how often should we back up?

The more important the data, the more frequently you will want to run your backup and the more backup copies that you should have at various locations. The importance, and new entry growth cycle, of your data is something that only you can judge. The recommended best practice to users is to set your backup to occur daily at midnight, and weekly on Fridays at midnight.

Common approaches

Practice-management customer service centers constantly deal with many common questions about data loss directly related to hard drive failure. Besides hard drive failure, centers regularly hear about accidental deletion of documents or information stored on the hard drive.

There are many different approaches to backing up your data. Internal backup within your practice is the first place to start. Make sure you run your backup tapes on a daily basis and have an “end of the week” backup tape. Make sure your backup duplicates to a secure site that is outside the confines of your practice.

This could be as simple as using an external USB hard disk. But if you have more than one practice location, more than one practice computer, or you run an extremely busy practice, this solution has its limits — the least of which is keeping all the USB drives organized and inventoried.

Solution: automatic eBackup

The best option is to partner with an automated backup program that is offsite and backed up to multiple remote servers on a daily basis. The best part? With an automated program, you never have to touch a hard drive, a mouse, or a server. You can receive automatic alerts via email or text every time your backup happens. That’s it! Your backup is instant, consistent, and secure.

Some practices do internal and external backups. This may not protect you from total disaster, but it will certainly protect you from the most common causes of data loss.

If your hard drive crashes, having the proper backup will help your customer service representative restore your files, and most likely your entire system, from your backup files with the click of a button. CSRs can also locate accidentally deleted files, as long as the backup is completed and functional on a daily or hourly basis. Backup training is something that should be taken seriously.

So having a proper and secure backup protects your practice from financial disaster, and also allows you to reconstruct data. Soon, automatic eBackup may be the key to total compliance with emerging legislation initiatives around electronic health records. Don’t wait to identify a solution for your practice.

Securing your data is simple, fast, and affordable

Data backup is of utmost importance. This is a function that cannot be overlooked, and can be easily accomplished daily. Without functioning backups, trying to “rescue” a practice system is virtually impossible. It is certainly more fiscally prudent to have proper backup systems in place than to finance a practice reconstruction. As your practice changes, you must monitor the importance and growth of your practice data, and require even stronger building blocks to continue maximizing practice profitability.

For every practitioner, I strongly recommend implementing an electronic backup solution as soon as possible. When you continually monitor and flex your process as your practice grows, you will achieve the best possible return from your investment. Some practice-management software systems offer an eBackup license with units sold. Some companies have untethered backup solutions available to users of practice-management software.

Donald P. Lewis, Jr., DDS, CFE, is an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in private practice in Cleveland, Ohio. He is also a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), and is a highly sought after speaker on the subject of white-collar crime. These seminars are taught to health-care professionals, accountants, and legal professionals. Reach Dr. Lewis via email at [email protected] or visit www.fraudnetpro.com.

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