When Technology Fails

Ted McElroy, OD
Vision Source Tifton, Tifton, GA

In June 2003, Dr. Ted McElroy went into the office on a Saturday morning to see a patient for a one-day Lasik post-op appointment. But when he turned on the workstation in the exam room to access the EHR ... disaster!

“It wouldn’t connect, so I went to the server closet and found the server was turned off,” McElroy says. “That is when it dawned on me we had some very rough weather the evening before and the power had gone out. So, I started up the server ... and then came the ‘Blue Screen of Death.’

“It said to restart the server, so I did and I waited and waited. Nothing happened,” he explains. “I went ahead saw the patient, did the exam on paper, and called my IT guy. We’re in a small town, so even though it was a Saturday, he came right over. He told me my hard drive had crashed and I should let him replace it with one to get me by while we ordered a new server. He installed the temporary driver and plugged in my backup tape. It was blank.”

But luckily not all was lost just yet. “I went home where I keep the rest of the backups and came back with them. All of the subsequent weekly back up tapes were also blank! My previous IT guy had set up the system, which I never tested,” McElroy recalls. “But I had one ace in the hole left. Each year I make a manual backup and take the end-of-the-year tape home. It was missing the last six months of data, but at this point I didn’t care. We put the tape in and it worked! Until halfway through when a message popped up saying the data was corrupt.”

But as with most problems, throwing money at it often helps. “My IT guy then said, ‘Ted, we have one other thing we can try, but it is really expensive,’ and he explained we could send the hard drive to a clean room facility where they would take it apart and read the old drive plates to extract the data and send me back a new preloaded hard drive,” he says. “I sheepishly asked much will that would cost and he said, ‘Oh, it could be two or three thousand dollars if they get the data.’” With over $60,000 in accounts receivable on that drive, it was worth the investment to McElroy, so off it went. “Two days later they said there was nothing that could be done. We lost everything.”

 Often unassuming in appearance, the server closet is the lifesblood of a practice.

What exactly was everything? “In addition to the accounts receivables and exam records, we also lost the appointments,” McElroy says. “We couldn’t take the risk of not making new ones so we began making appointments and for the first two months we were averaging 40 complete exams per day coming in at 8 a.m. and leaving around 7 p.m. After a few months the double-booking improved but we had at least one or two ‘mystery dates’ every day for a year. People would arrive and say they had an appointment and we’d say, ‘Yes, you do.’

“The accounts receivable were an issue but we couldn’t exactly send a letter out to all our patients saying we lost our server and asking them to let us know what they owed us,” he says. Or could they? “In essence, we did just that, and we’d get a check here and there for the next few months. We had no way to connect it to a current bill or an old one, but in all we collected about 75 percent of the total loss of accounts receivable just with patients and insurance companies sending us money.

“Now it’s almost commonplace to hear about electronic security breaches and we’ve become used to it,” McElroy says, but he is still taking precautions. “Get a referral from your colleagues, from your network, to make sure the IT professional you bring on is good. And even then check him. Make sure what he is doing is correct. They are human too and make mistakes. Don’t trust them when they say they have tested your system. Test everything yourself and make sure it works in the way you understand it should work.

“We did a test run two weeks after putting in the new server, and we periodically still check it. And I always have a week’s worth of backups at home and always do a year-end one. To this day, that crash is the best and worst thing that ever happened to our practice,” he says.





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