By Ed Spears

When it comes to delivering quality care to patients, healthcare providers’ access to continuous, clean power is foundational. IT systems have become the backbone of the modern hospital, and data the lifeblood, that helps propel operations and services. As the need for power continues to grow in the mission-critical healthcare environment, providers can’t afford any downtime.

But with the magnitude of ever-escalating power threats and the growing complexity of healthcare IT, uptime isn’t an easy guarantee. Over the past decade, Eaton’s Blackout Tracker has logged more than 32,000 separate power outages, many of which impacted hospitals and healthcare services.

In 2017 alone, Eaton registered 3,526 outages nationwide, affecting 36.7 million people for a collective 197 days. In this article, we’ll explore more on the origins and impact of power outages in healthcare IT, as well as the importance backup power systems play as part of a strategic disaster preparedness plan.

A Complex Challenge

Power outages can come from any number of sources, including one of the most obvious: nature. As beautiful as Mother Nature is, she also has a wrath that lashes out in the form of hurricanes, thunderstorms, tornadoes, monsoons, heat waves, and other weather events that may cause serious power outages for hospitals that aren’t prepared.

Perhaps even more alarming is that, in many cases, the scale of these nasty weather events is only intensifying. The 2017 hurricane season, for example, produced off-the-charts damage—which experts largely attributed to climate change-induced warmer water in the Atlantic.

Looking ahead, meteorologists predict that climate change will not only fuel more powerful storms, but also produce another phenomenon called “global weirding.” The term refers to a rise in average global temperature sparking a range of occurrences, including intensified hot and cold spells, increased droughts, and more extreme flooding.

Storms of a different kind can occur within healthcare facilities themselves—coming in the form of power surges that are another major cause of debilitating outages. When high-powered electrical devices such as elevators, air conditioners, refrigerators, pumps, compressors, and motors are switched on and off, or operate in cycles, they can generate internal surges that degrade electrical equipment, often resulting in premature failure that results in downtime. Those power-hungry devices are sometimes rendered useless because of an outage.

Exacerbating the problem with power outages is the fact that modern healthcare IT equipment is even more sensitive to electrical disturbances than in the past and, at the same time, more important to patient care than ever before. It’s a complex issue without a simple answer.

Halting Healthcare Services

Regardless of the instigator that triggers a power outage, the effects of downtime can be devastating. Monetary costs alone are often astronomical, with a staggering $100,000 price tag now associated with just 60 minutes of downtime, according to an IT Intelligence Consulting (ITIC) study. And this cost doesn’t even factor in the impact these events can have on patient care and safety.

Over the past year, we’ve seen numerous examples of the complications that can occur when the lights go out unexpectedly. At the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Kindred Hospital, for example, eight critically ill patients on ventilators had to be transferred to nearby Broward Health Medical Center after a May 2018 blackout left the facility without power. Similarly, some patients at Tennessee’s Lauderdale Community Hospital were forced to relocate following an outage last New Year’s Eve. As the only hospital for miles, the facility had to run on a generator for hours after the power shut off.

Metroplex Health System in Killeen, Texas, also had to transfer all patients to other nearby medical facilities last September after electricity was cut at the hospital. Nearly 14 hours later, crews were still working to restore power.

While evacuations aren’t always necessary, unexpected closures at medical facilities remain extremely inconvenient and damaging, requiring patient appointments to be rescheduled and disrupting a variety of services. Pennsylvania’s Meritus Urgent Care, Meritus Medical Laboratory, Meritus Family Medicine, and Meritus Pediatric and Adult Medicine all temporarily closed the morning of Sept. 9, 2018, due to a power outage in the Sylvania Center building. Furthermore, a May 2018 power outage at the central tower of St. David’s South Austin Medical Center in Texas prompted authorities to reschedule all non-emergency surgical cases.

Although the risk of power events is ever-present, hospitals and their IT teams can take advantage of backup power devices to ensure they’re protected in the case of an emergency and that important functions stay up and running.

Building a Solid Defense

Although power failures can happen due to weather and other unforeseen events, an uninterruptible power supply (UPS)—deployed in conjunction with a backup generator and a power distribution unit(PDU)—is designed to deliver reliable power during outages so that critical IT functions can stay up and running. These systems help healthcare facilities avoid both data loss and hardware damage by providing availability for networks and other applications during a power event.

Increasingly, IT personnel are demanding the ability to monitor and control power, making software an essential component in a sound power protection strategy. Some IT staffs also utilize virtualization infrastructure, which should be considered in alignment with power monitoring software to ensure their integrated capabilities are being maximized and used correctly.

By combining power management solutions with common virtualization management platforms—like those from VMware, Cisco, NetApp, Dell EMC, HPE, Nutanix, and Scale Computing—IT teams can extend the availability of their services. Technicians can also remotely manage physical and virtual servers and power management devices, all from a single console.

Cybersecurity is another factor to consider in power management planning to keep data secure from unauthorized access. As backup systems become more advanced and interconnected with other devices, some power management providers are already taking steps to ensure their products are safe from cyber-threats and offer peace of mind for users. Products certified by standards bodies, such as UL and the International Electrotechnical Commission, typically offer the most reassurance for hospitals that the connectivity used for data collection will not be compromised.

Onward and Upward

As hospital demands continue to evolve with IT advancement in areas like the Internet of Things and Big Data, the need for continuous uptime will only grow. With an optimal power backup solution in place, IT managers can continue to meet technology and data processing demands, ensure system uptime, and protect the privacy of patients.

To increase efficiency and get the most out of their systems, hospitals and their IT teams should take a holistic approach to disaster preparedness planning. By forging a strategic alignment—one that marries power backup hardware and software devices with other power management systems—teams can rest easy knowing that they are covered.

Ed Spears is a product marketing manager in Eaton’s Critical Power Solutions Division in Raleigh, N.C. Questions and comments can be directed to 24×7 Magazine chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at kstephens@medqor.com.