The Dangers of Power Outages at Health Care Facilities

By Devin Partida, Editor-in-Chief,
Twitter: @rehackmagazine

Emergency preparedness is crucial for health care facilities. Disruptions that mean little more than monetary loss for some businesses can be a matter of life or death in hospitals. Power outages are a prime example of these risks.

The Department of Health and Human Services requires alternate power sources for 17 categories of health care suppliers. Still, these systems can fail, too, or they may provide limited power or take time to start up. Facilities must be aware of the risks outages pose to drive appropriate preparedness and response.

Critical Equipment Failures

The most pressing and immediately apparent danger of power outages is critical equipment losing functionality. Ventilators, dialysis machines and similar items require constant power to work properly, and many patients rely on these devices. Even momentary electricity losses could jeopardize patients’ health or even lives.

If these systems lose power, health care facilities will likely have to evacuate patients to an alternative site. Depending on how many people need immediate attention, hospitals may not have enough ambulances to transport everyone safely. Similarly, moving to another location could overwhelm the secondary facilities, and the transport process may be risky for patients in critical condition.

Refrigeration Loss

Losing power to non-mission-critical infrastructure can still be damaging. Most notably, health care facilities rely on constant refrigeration for vaccines, some drugs and blood transplants. A power outage could shut refrigeration systems off, and if they remain warm for too long, these resources could spoil.

For example, facilities must keep COVID vaccines between -130 and -76 degrees Fahrenheit. Maintaining temperatures that low often requires a considerable amount of power, and even temporary losses can jeopardize them. As a result, power outages could lead to facilities losing potentially life-saving resources in addition to the monetary loss these spoilages represent.

Patient Data Exposure

A less obvious danger of power outages at health care facilities is the risk of exposing medical data. This information is even more valuable than credit card numbers to hackers, making these facilities high-value targets. A loss in power could disrupt hospitals’ security systems, leaving them vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Even if a health care facility only loses power for a moment, it could take digital systems a while to restart. Sometimes, all a cybercriminal needs is a few seconds of opportunity to infiltrate the network, accessing sensitive patient data. These criminals may then hold it for ransom or expose it publicly, leaving the facility open to financial and legal damages.

How to Prevent Outages

Given these risks, health care facilities must do all they can to prevent and mitigate power outages. The first step is ensuring reliable backup energy sources. Facilities must test them monthly to ensure they’re in working condition.

Hospitals and similar facilities should also perform vulnerability assessments to determine which systems are the most crucial to power. Prioritizing equipment will help account for situations where backup systems can’t power the entire facility.

Using remote monitoring technology in power supplies can help predict incoming outages. Similarly, facilities can sign up for emergency shutoff warnings from their energy vendors. These steps can help them respond to emergencies faster, ensuring safer and more efficient responses.

Finally, it’s important to understand that not all emergencies are avoidable. Health care businesses must write a formal power outage plan to ensure smooth responses, including evacuation routes and communication procedures.

Health Care Facilities Must Prepare for Power Outages

Power outages have too much destructive potential for health care facilities to ignore. These emergencies can endanger patient lives, leak sensitive data and result in considerable financial losses. However, proper preparation can prevent these damages.

The first step to appropriate emergency response plans is understanding the possible risks. When health care organizations know what could go wrong, they can take effective measures to ensure they don’t.