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Tornadoes, fires and floods… Oh my!

November 6, 2012

By Joan Abney, manager of the Paraoptometric Section

Disaster can strike in the blink of an eye. In just a short span of time in 2011, many businesses received a direct hit from Hurricane Irene on the East Coast, and later that same year Joplin, Mo., was hit by an EF5 multiple-vortex tornado that destroyed many homes and businesses. Some were prepared for emergencies, but most were not.

Natural or man-made emergencies, such as loss of electrical power, fire damage and water problems (due to flooding or loss of your water supply), all require immediate attention. It is wise to have an emergency plan in place to preserve business continuity.

An optometric office in Michigan recently had a leaky pipe on the second floor that flooded the optical area and caused damage to all the carpets. A clogged gutter also caused part of the ceiling in the consultation room to collapse.

Upon entering the office in the morning, staff was shocked to discover what had happened overnight. After calling the owner optometrist, staff immediately started contacting the patients scheduled for that day.

Damages affected the normal flow of patients, but the office remained open and offered limited services. Patients were given the option to reschedule their appointments, and signs were posted indicating the office was temporarily undergoing repairs. The unaffected areas of the office were utilized until the repairs were complete.

This particular crisis affected only one practice, but as we know, others can include entire communities.

What measures have been taken to develop a disaster plan for your optometric practice? Unlike a disaster hitting your home, there can be many additional responsibilities when a disaster hits your place of business. Not only are you dealing with the physical damage to the building, but you will also need to be prepared to notify staff and patients of the problems that may lie ahead.

There are proper steps to be taken to ensure a smooth transition when facing a disaster. Having a plan that will allow staff to be resilient in keeping your services running is essential. A goal of 80 to 90 percent of business processes moving forward, if possible, is ideal.

Nine questions to ask 

According to Associations Now, there are several questions to ask when developing a disaster plan for your office. Your staff should be included in the discussion because they will be directly affected by the crisis as much as yourself. Staff will be at the forefront of the activities to get the office up and running again.

Questions to include in the discussion are:

1. What constitutes a crisis? The untimely death of an employee can affect the practice as dramatically as an earthquake. Have your staff come up with a list of possible circumstances that would cause a disruption in “business as usual.”

2. What will need to be done and who will be responsible for performing the tasks? Knowing who, what, where, when and how before the crisis will help implement the plan in a timely manner should it be needed. A different plan may be required for each circumstance, but when staff can be deployed into their assigned roles and carry out tasks efficiently, a sense of “calm and purpose” replaces a sense of “chaos and helplessness.”

3. What should be communicated to others? Keeping both staff and patients informed should be communicated by one key spokesperson. Gathering information from a reliable source like local emergency departments or the National Weather Service will provide confidence in relaying timely and accurate information. Remove the chance of rumors and guesswork being started. Staff should rely only on information given by the designated spokesperson.

4. Will the office need to reach out to help the community? Getting the practice up and running may have to be put on the back burner as the needs of the community become priority. Staff may need to become volunteers for emergency organizations or the practice may need to donate supplies or other resources to help the community rebuild. Determine how much will be expected of staff and of the practice during a community crisis.

5. What services, if any, will the practice be able to offer patients? The practice may not be able to provide patient care in the office right after the disaster. The practice should network with other optometric practices in the area to form an alliance for possible alternate locations to conduct patient care or serve as resources to refer patients to in emergencies.

6. How will records be preserved? Even with electronic health records in place, it is imperative to make sure the records are stored on the server and backed up nightly to an off-site location.

7. How will the practice help meet the needs of staff? Staff may be affected legally, financially, physically and emotionally during and after a crisis. Having key people determine a course of action and having helpful resources available to staff may aid in helping them recover sooner.

8. What were the “lessons learned’? Many emergency response teams make an assessment after a disaster to determine what went right, what went wrong, what worked, and what didn’t. Making this assessment immediately after a crisis and applying the lessons learned into the office disaster plan will make this information readily available for future use.

9. How often should staff prepare for a disaster? Try to schedule an annual disaster drill to help staff react with confidence in crisis management. Provide a staff training with emergency personnel from your community to learn valuable skills such as CPR and first aid.

Having a disaster plan in place is essential to business survival. Practices should have a strategy to minimize damages, lost time and money. Here are a few items to have on your checklist:

  • Multiple contact information (home and cell phone numbers and personal email addresses) for staff, important vendors, suppliers, insurance companies, and key patients
  • Multiple and reliable methods of communicating with your employees, such as pagers, two-way radios, websites, smartphones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), email, and an emergency toll-free hotline
  • If evacuated, have access to insurance policies, company contracts, company checks, a list of bank accounts, credit cards, and ATM cards.

Once your office has a disaster plan in place, routinely practice and review it throughout the year. Staff should be as comfortable putting the plan into action at a moment’s notice as they are with their regular daily routines.

The AOA has formulated a disaster plan for the optometric office. It is designed to provide general preparation education materials, including topics such as steps to take prior to the threat of a disaster to protect patient records, practice data and assets, including staff, as well as what important papers should be safeguarded and kept accessible to assist in the recovery process. The plan also provides information regarding what challenges members might face once disaster strikes and resources available to help them get through the ordeal and back into practice as quickly as possible. To view this resource, visit http://www.aoa.org/x14604.xml.

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