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Prepare for the Unforeseen

Put your disaster plan in motion before you need it
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Although most dentists will never experience a hurricane, other disasters such as storms, fires, floods and earthquakes can wreak havoc on your practice. A little preparation can go a long way toward paving the path to recovery.

Have a plan

In an emergency, all employees should know their roles and where to go for shelter, as well as what the escape routes and shutdown procedures are. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers with 11 or more employees to have a written emergency action plan (EAP), while smaller companies may communicate their plans orally. Emergency procedures most relevant to dentists include:

  • Escape procedures and escape route assignments.
  • Special procedures for employees who perform or shut down critical operations systems.
  • Systems to account for all employees after evacuation and for information about the plan.
  • Rescue and medical duties for employees who perform them.
  • Means for reporting fires and other emergencies.

Quality disaster preparedness also includes having an audible alarm system and advance identification, and assessing likely hazards. Someone should be designated as an emergency response manager whom employees can contact for more information. The emergency response manager should maintain a list of all office personnel and their complete contact information.

Your EAP should be reviewed and updated at least annually, even if you're certain little has changed since the last review.

OSHA states that every employee should understand the details of the EAP, including evacuation plans, alarm systems, reporting procedures for personnel, shutdown procedures and types of potential emergencies. Procedures dealing with special hazards, such as gas or flammable materials, should be discussed with employees. Drills should be held at least annually. Larger offices should consider including outside police and fire authorities in both drills and development of emergency plans.

When new equipment, materials or processes are introduced; the layout or design of the facility changes; procedures have been updated or revised; or exercises show that employee performance is inadequate, employees should be retrained.

According to OSHA, first aid must be available within three to four minutes of an emergency. If your office is more than three or four minutes from an infirmary, clinic or hospital, at least one person on-site should be trained in first aid. First aid supplies must be easily available, and emergency phone numbers (including ambulance service) should be placed in conspicuous locations near or on office telephones.

Business continuity

In addition to an emergency action plan, you should also assemble a business continuity plan (BCP) to help guide you if a disaster affects your practice or your community. Having a clear plan outlining what to do and in what sequence can safeguard the practice's assets and minimize any loss of revenue. Creating such a plan takes time and effort, but having one in place will bring you peace of mind if you don't use it and an actionable plan if you do. Your professional liability carrier may be able to help you determine whether they have any resources to assist you in developing a BCP.

Patient records

In a disaster, it is important that patient records are maintained, while simultaneously preventing unauthorized access to private information. Duplicate records of essential patient and accounting files, legal documents and lists of employee relatives — to be notified in case of emergency — can be kept at off-site locations.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy Rule requires dentists who are "covered entities" to limit access to consumer health information. Not all dental practices are considered to be covered entities, but those that are not still must comply with applicable state law, and they may still find it prudent to comply with certain safeguards in the HIPAA rules.

Disasters are rare, but when they occur they can be devastating to your practice. Planning for them in advance can minimize the impact of a natural or human-made emergency and help you, your patients and your staff members get back to normal more quickly. A variety of emergency and disaster planning resources are available from the ADA Center for Professional Success.

Disclaimer: These materials are intended to provide helpful information to dentists and dental team members. They are in no way a substitute for actual professional advice based upon your unique facts and circumstances. This content is not intended or offered, nor should it be taken, as legal or other professional advice. You should always consult with your own professional advisors (e.g. attorney, accountant, insurance carrier). To the extent ADA has included links to any third party web site(s), ADA intends no endorsement of their content and implies no affiliation with the organizations that provide their content. Further, ADA makes no representations or warranties about the information provided on those sites.