Zap! Power Outage at Your Office -- How to Prepare

Gregory A. Hood, MD

Disclosures

December 28, 2016

In This Article

Steps to Take When the Lights Go Out

As in years past, once power has been lost, it's typically worthwhile to unplug as many pieces of electrical equipment as possible. Power surges are common when power is initially restored. These surges can damage equipment that's still plugged in, especially if it was on at the time of the outage.

However, there are a wide variety of potential issues that have to be taken into consideration if you plan to see patients when the power is out.

First, does your practice manager know the contact information for each utility company? Has your practice communicated with the utilities that this is a medical facility and should be a priority location when responding to the power outage?

In addition, where's your panel box? Sometimes power outages not only disrupt power, but also trip circuit breakers. You don't want to be sitting there thinking that everyone's power is out, when all you needed to do was reset your breakers.

Here are a couple of other things to consider in a power outage: Who's responsible for your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) services, and do you have emergency contingency plans? If you have a landlord, have you talked to property management about mutual expectations in the event of a power outage?

The location of your medical suite within the building needs to be considered as well. If you're not on the ground floor, what's your contingency plan for getting patients with limited mobility into (and out of) your practice? Stairway access alone will simply not work for some patients.

With this in mind, if your area is anticipating a major storm, it might make sense to reschedule the nonemergent appointments of your patients who have limited mobility. A wheelchair-bound patient getting stuck in the office because the elevator is out is not a good moment. This can happen anywhere, even in places not predisposed to major storms. For instance, in July 2012, a five-story medical office building near my old practice in southern California had to be evacuated after a power outage.

Speaking of which, a specific person (or persons) should be designated to make sure that the office and each of the darkened rooms are emptied and secured before going home at the end of the day. These should be the same people who coordinate the office's evacuation plan in the event of extreme weather, such as a tornado warning. This plan should be reviewed and practiced at least annually.

Have You Considered a Backup Generator?

Practices located in large medical centers often have the benefit of sophisticated backup generator systems. For those that don't, it can be helpful to learn from the utility companies where you get your service from. This can help anticipate when storms may interrupt power. This knowledge can also help protect power lines in terms of tree limbs that need to be trimmed and other reasonable, foreseeable precautions.

If you own your medical building, consider purchasing a "whole house" backup generator. Although most home generators run off of diesel fuel or natural gas, some use alternative energy sources, such as wind or solar power. It's important to keep in mind that some sort of dedicated backup power supply is essential for perishable medical supplies, such as vaccines and certain medications.

Be aware, too, that some of your patients may have medical devices or medical supplies in the home that will be affected by power outages. The US Food and Drug Administration has released a primer for patients to help them plan for these events. You might want to link to this important document from your practice's website.

In time, solar and other "off grid" power options are expected to become more viable, although the intensive need for energy in the medical office setting places the bar high for sufficient, predictable power from renewable sources—particularly on the budget of a small practice.

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