Strong emergency action plans help safeguard dental practices, ensure business continuity

Key elements to minimize disruptions when natural disasters strike

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a devastating wildfire season and recording-breaking hurricane season left dental practice owners recovering from secondary disasters. In 2020, the United States was affected by 10 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each, according to the latest available data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Centers for Environmental Information.

Dentists and their dental teams should create a business continuity plan to guide them through what to do if a disaster impacts their practice or local community. Planning for a disaster in advance can minimize the impact of the emergency so that you, your patients and staff members get back to normal.

Elements of emergency planning

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets and enforces protective workplace safety and health standards and provides information, training and assistance to workers and employers. A well-developed emergency plan and proper employee training will result in fewer and less severe injuries and less structural damage to the facility during emergencies, according to OSHA.

An emergency action plan must be in writing, kept in the workplace and available to employees for review. However, an employer with 10 or fewer employees may communicate the plan verbally to employees. At minimum, an emergency action plan must include procedures for reporting a fire or other emergency, for evacuating and for employees who remain for critical operations and for those performing rescue or medical duties. Additionally, the plan must include procedures to account for all employees after evacuation as well as the name or job title of every employee who may be contacted by employees for information or an explanation of their duties under the plan.

Further, 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 in order to properly protect patient data.

As the number of extreme events — such as heat waves, droughts, tornadoes and hurricanes — continue to rise, prolonged power outages are becoming increasingly commonplace in various regions of the U.S. A recent ADA member survey asked dentists about the emergencies they have experienced in the dental office. The most commonly reported events — besides the current pandemic — included prolonged power outages and computer system failures.

Basics of business continuity

The purpose of a business continuity plan is to minimize the disruption to business. For this reason, dental teams should have a plan in place before they need it. A business continuity plan should include the following:

  • Existing plans and policies. Including fire and flood protection plans, facility security procedures, insurance policies, finance and purchasing procedures, employee policies and risk management plans.
  • Equipment. Including fire protection and suppression equipment, communications equipment, first aid and triage supplies, emergency power equipment and personal protective equipment.
  • Personnel. For instance, the total number of staff types including kinds of skills, total number of staff available in an emergency (of these, their distance from the office) and total number of full- and part-time staff.
  • Backup systems for critical functions. Consider an offsite storage of paper or electronic medical records, payroll, communications, patient services and computer systems.

Preparedness requires continued vigilance to ensure that the plans are reviewed regularly, equipment is maintained and the plan is tested to make sure it works. Further, more information to help dentists prepare for emergency situations can be found in the ADA Guidelines for Practice Success module on Managing Professional Risks.

Recovering while preparing for next emergency

As communities begin to evaluate the damage caused by natural disasters, figuring out the next steps can be distressing to practice owners. The ADA offers a number of resources to help dentists recover from natural disasters like hurricanes and tropical storms. These resources include information on:

  • Retaining and caring for staff after a disaster.
  • Handling issues that arise after a storm, such as flooding, mold, mosquitos and infectious diseases.
  • Ensuring data backup and recovery of computer systems.
  • Staff pay and leave issues following the hurricane.

These resources, along with guidance on creating an emergency action plan for future natural disasters, can be found at Emergency Planning and Disaster Recovery Planning in the Dental Office