By Ed Spears
Power plays a vital role in a healthcare organization’s ability to run efficiently and deliver quality care to patients. Unfortunately, disasters can strike at any time. Whether it’s damaging weather or freak accidents, these unforeseen events can lead to significant power outages that result in costly damages if organizations aren’t careful.
In this article, we will provide more insights on the risks associated with outages and the importance of ensuring continuous, stable, and reliable power. We will also outline some basic solutions that hospitals and healthcare organizations can implement to protect against the dangers of downtime.
Power outages impact people in a variety of ways, scaling from minor events that affect just a handful of homes or businesses to massive outages that leave entire regions in the dark. In 2017, Eaton’s Blackout Tracker Report studied power outages across the U.S. and found that blackouts affected nearly 27 million people across the nation—almost double the amount affected in 2016. A total of 3,526 blackouts were recorded in the report, lasting an average of 81 minutes per power outage.
This trend is particularly problematic for larger organizations like hospitals and healthcare organizations where the impact of power outages can have life-or-death consequences. In fact, a recent Information Technology Intelligence Consulting study revealed that in verticals such as healthcare, the costs associated with a single hour of downtime for enterprises with more than 1,000 employees tops the $5 million mark.
In healthcare, downtime obviously isn’t only about dollars—a long outage can significantly impede an organization’s ability to treat patients effectively. Combined with the potential losses in money, data and reputation, an unplanned outage could even cause a smaller hospital or clinic to go out of business.
While a big price tag can come with an extended outage, there are a number of nuanced disruptions that may also occur—even with smaller or shorter interruptions. Consequences can result in corrupted files, hardware malfunctions and the inability to access critical systems, all of which take on a new level of importance where electronic medical records are concerned.
Power interruptions to medical imaging suites, and medical lab equipment impede the ability of the provider to quickly and accurately diagnose and treat the patient—and for these patients, time is of the essence. These are just a small sample of the possible negative outcomes of unexpected downtime, which can significantly impact hospital operations and client satisfaction.
While the industry downtime average is dependent on many factors, and the potential losses vary based on a broad range of elements including revenue, type of organization, outage duration, the number of people affected and the time of day an outage strikes—it’s safe to say that downtime must be avoided at all costs.
Anything can happen in the healthcare environment, so it’s often not a question of if a disaster will strike, but when. That makes power protection even more important. It isn’t about getting everything up and running immediately either. Instead, it’s about allowing the hospital to do enough to function and serve patients while systems are being restored to full capacity. For example, the operating rooms must operate continuously, regardless of any external disruptions; the CT or MRI scanner supporting the emergency room must always be available. It’s truly a matter of life and death.
Uninterruptible power systems (UPSs), generators and power management software solutions are designed to deliver reliable power during outages so vital systems can stay up and running. In general, a UPS protects IT equipment and other electrical devices from problems that plague our electrical supply, by performing the following three basic functions:
- Preventing hardware damage that is typically caused by voltage surges and spikes: Many UPS models continually condition incoming power as well.
- Preventing data loss and corruption: Without a UPS, devices that are subjected to a hard system shutdown can lose data completely or become corrupted. In conjunction with power management software, a UPS can facilitate a graceful system shutdown, that preserves critical data.
- Providing availability for networks, imaging, lab, and pharmacy applications while preventing downtime: In some cases, a UPS provides enough battery runtime to ride through brief outages; in other cases, it provides hours of runtime to ride through extended power outages. UPSs are also paired with generators to provide enough time for them to power up.
When selecting a UPS, one of the primary things for a healthcare organization to consider is whether to deploy a centralized or decentralized solution. In a decentralized UPS configuration, multiple UPSs support a handful of devices or a single piece of equipment. In a central UPS configuration, one larger UPS is deployed to support multiple devices.
Both strategies have their advantages, so the onus is on the individual organization to evaluate. The primary benefit of a centralized system is the ability to isolate maintenance, repair, replacement, and security to the same single point for increased efficiency and visibility. Battery monitoring and UPS status communication are simplified because there are less points to monitor.
On the other hand, all their eggs are in one centralized “UPS basket.” The main advantages of a decentralized solution are lower initial cost, self-serve maintenance, and more flexibility for changes. Additionally, the failure risk is spread over many UPS devices, limiting the impact of any single failure or battery depletion.
Keeping a Watchful Eye
No matter which strategy an organization decides to implement for its UPS solution, power management software is recommended to ensure that all work in progress is saved, medical records preserved, and that sensitive electronic equipment is gracefully shut down if the power outage exceeds the battery runtime of the UPS and its generator.
Without software, a UPS simply runs until its batteries are depleted and then drops the supported critical devices. That’s typically not enough functionality for a hospital where doctors, nurses, and other staff depend on sophisticated systems that often can’t be shut down without notice. In addition to providing the capability to monitor UPSs, there are a number of other software capabilities that organizations should consider in order to maximize power monitoring and manageability. A few of these include:
- Power event notifications, including emails, pop-up alerts, and text messages to pre-designated recipients
- Predictive analytics capabilities that forewarn the user that maintenance or repair is needed prior to an unexpected failure
- Dedicated battery monitoring and advanced service notifications
- Remote monitoring by service personnel from the UPS manufacturer
- Logging and recording of power events
- Advanced virtualization capabilities, including integration into VMware’s ESXi and vSphere, and Microsoft Hyper-V platforms
In today’s fast-paced healthcare environments, a manual approach to power monitoring and management isn’t sustainable. With an advanced platform in place to leverage today’s innovative power protection solutions, organizations can defend against downtime when an emergency arises. It’s a win-win for all who are impacted, providing peace of mind for hospital staff and the patients they serve every day.
- Blackout and power outage tracker [online]. Cleveland: Eaton Corp, 2017. Available at: https://switchon.eaton.com/blackout-tracker.
- Hourly Downtime Tops $300K for 81% of Firms; 33% of Enterprises Say Downtime Costs >$1M [online]. Grafton, Mass.: Information Technology Consulting, 2017. Available at: http://itic-corp.com/blog/2017/05/hourly-downtime-tops-300k-for-81-of-firms-33-of-enterprises-say-downtime-costs-1m/.
Ed Spears is product manager of Eaton. Questions and comments can be directed to 24×7 Magazine chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.