6 Questions to Help You Avoid Disaster with a PACS Data Backup

Posted by Phil Jackson on Feb 6, 2017 2:49:51 PM

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There's no arguing that if you work in health care you need to protect the data in your picture archiving and communication system (PACS). Having good backups of your data is critical as a loss of protected health information (PHI) could be detrimental to your practice or hospital.

Take a moment to consider what would happen to your practice if your medical imaging data was destroyed. Unfortunately, medical practices have been forced to close entirely due to backup failures.

To help you get started with assessing your PACS data backup process, here are a few key questions you should ask yourself or your vendor about data recovery and restoration processes.

1. Who Is Responsible for Backing Up Your Data?

The short answer to this question is that you are. It can be a daunting task remembering and staying diligent with keeping your PACS backed up amidst all your other responsibilities. Performing manual backups can be time-consuming, resource-intensive and expensive.

That said, even if you have a third-party vendor that manages your onsite PACS, it is still ultimately your responsibility to make sure they are adequately backing up your system. That means you need to check up on your PACS vendor’s data protection practices to ensure they are sufficient.

Furthermore, if you work with a third-party PACS vendor, you may want to reconfirm the expectations around who owns data backups. The last thing you want is a misunderstanding where you think that third party is handling backups and they think you are. Better to be safe than caught with your pants down. Talk to your vendor. Confirm they are indeed redundantly backing up your data offsite, or if that is something they are expecting you to handle.

To avoid all of this hassle, you should consider an automated backup system that either saves your data to a separate location or to the cloud without any manual processes. This way you won't have to remember to back up your data or ensure your vendor has done so.

2. Are the Backups Actually Happening Regularly?

Whether you own a clinical practice or oversee data security for a hospital, when you rely on human processes to ensure you have adequate backups, you will often end up on the receiving end of a few unpleasant surprises.

The issue usually isn’t whether there is a backup, but rather whether the backup is current. Whatever system you use for backing up your data, validate if those backups are occurring on schedule. If you use a vendor, ask them to confirm the dates and times that your most recent backups were taken. Test the system by attempting to recover a study from a certain date to ensure that the information exists and is accessible. Perform these checks regularly.

Data backups are better than no backup at all, but the best backup is a live cloud PACS that can replace your local PACS should a disaster occur. A live cloud backup enables your information to be instantly available should your primary system find itself out of commission.

3. Do You Have Enough Storage for Backup?

You don’t want to get into a situation where backups stop happening because you’ve run out of physical storage space. You should have enough storage capacity available to accommodate all your backups, and you should check on this regularly. You do not want to end up in a situation where backups haven’t been happening for several months, simply because of a space issue that could have been avoided.

Utilizing a cloud backup platform will ensure you never find yourself in a situation where you don't have enough storage space for a backup. The great thing about the cloud, is that you don't need to continue to make lumpy hardware purchases every time you need to expand your storage.

4. Are Your Backups in the Right Format?

Some vendors back up data in a proprietary format, which can cause massive headaches down the road. If the vendor goes out of business, you might not be able to open the backup files if they are in a nonstandard format your devices and applications do not support.

If leveraging a vendor to manage your backup processes, always choose a PACS vendor that backs up data in a nonproprietary, standard Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine (DICOM) format and be sure to migrate any existing data into a format that you know will always be accessible.

5. Is Your Backup Media Sustainable?

In addition to considering the file formats used for your backups, you also need to think carefully about the physical media you plan to use. Tapes, for instance, can break down in long-term storage. Others types of storage like CDs may require devices to read them which might not be available on the equipment used in the future. Be aware that you might run into problems if the media you are using becomes obsolete in the future. CDs and DVDs also have a relatively small maximum storage capacity, making them cumbersome and even unusable for backups of large studies, such as with digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT).

Other backup storage options might include the use of a RAID array or an offsite PACS. The issue in these cases is that you will need to continually be conscious of the maintenance and costs associated with managing physical hardware. For instance, hard drives only have an average useful life of four years and will need to be replaced multiple times over the life of the data. 

Just ask yourself, "Do I want to become a data center or focus my efforts on providing quality patient care?"

If you decide you want to focus your efforts on your business and leave data management to someone else, incorporating a cloud PACS into your data management process will ensure you don't have to worry about continual hardware purchases and maintenance or dealing with technological obsolescence.

6. What Laws Govern Data Retention in Your Jurisdiction?

Do you know how long you are legally required to keep your medical imaging studies? This question can be complicated, as every jurisdiction has its own requirements. That said, many regions require you retain your medical images for five to seven years, with certain cases requiring studies be kept for over 20 years, such as in the case of minors.

As there could be legal implications in the event of a data loss, it is crucial to make sure you have an effective data backup process in place that protects you against disaster and legal ramifications. Making sure your data is stored in an offsite location or in the cloud can help ensure that it is safe and available over the regulated duration of time. 

Many practices even incorporate cloud vendors just to be their custodian of records for their historical data so they don't have to worry about managing it for regulatory purposes to remain compliant.

Be Smart About Data Protection

It pays to be smart about protecting the data in your PACS, because the practices that do lose their data are left footing the bill for expensive recovery services that do not always work out. In one case that we’ve observed, a practice experienced a catastrophic hardware failure that resulted in their PACS completely crashing. In an effort to restore the lost data, they sent their PACS off to an expensive restoration service, paying thousands of dollars only to find that 90 percent of the data came back incomplete or corrupted.

The practice never recovered and ultimately went out of business, a fate that could have been avoided had they been leveraging a cloud based backup from the beginning.

Don’t let the same thing happen to you; take action now to protect your PACS from disaster. Typically, a cloud-based PACS offers a cost-effective, low overhead method of achieving these best practices in backing up your data.

Take the time to assess your image management platform today.

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Topics: data backup, PACS backup

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