Backing up is (not so) hard to do

September 1, 2007

If you've ever been a victim of a mild case of computer fever, a patient record that you couldn't open, or a pre or post-operative media file that you or someone accidentally deleted, consider yourself lucky. Glitches like that pale in comparison to the ultimate computer disaster - a hard disk crash or a virus that wipes out all of your records including patient and billing files.

If you've ever been a victim of a mild case of computer fever, a patient record that you couldn't open, or a pre- or postoperative media file that you or someone accidentally deleted, it could've been worse.

These glitches pale compared with the ultimate computer disaster: a hard disk crash or a virus that wipes out all of your records, including patient and billing files.

Think it can't happen to you? Think again. Computer consultant Michael Leibrandt, Abington, Pa., says almost every computer in service over a period of several years will suffer a major catastrophe, such as a hard disk crash. Imagine what that would mean to your practice.

"Many business owners tend to think of a possible computer failure as the only risk to their business records," says Jack Shea, president of Solutions by Computer, Springfield, Mass. "It's easy to forget about the possibility of fire or flood."

Fortunately, modern technology has made protection from that kind of disaster simple and inexpensive.

Consider each data file and imagine what the consequences would be if that file disappeared or became unusable. This will tell you which files you must back up on a regular basis. Remember, you can replace a computer that fails; the information it contains, in many cases, is irreplaceable.

A brief history of backups

In the early days of desktop computers, backing up was a simple procedure.

All you had to do was pop a floppy disk in a drive and copy your data. Today, most files are much too large to fit on floppies. That's why manufacturers no longer include floppy drives as standard equipment; some no longer even offer them as options.

In 1995, Iomega introduced their innovative ZIP drive, a format that many regarded as the logical successor to the floppy, but that hasn't happened. One disadvantage was the cost of Zip disks, originally ranging from $5 to $10 per disk. Even with newer Zip disks able to hold up to 750MB at about $15 each, the ever-increasing size of data files has caused many users to look to emerging technology as a better solution to the backup problem.

While some users still rely on Zip disks for their backup chores, Mr. Leibrandt recommends looking to later technology as a better long-term choice for protecting business data.

Another early format no longer considered practical for business backups is the tape drive.

"Tape backups are less reliable than other methods," says Robert Meyhoefer, director of Information Systems, the Cardiology Group, Mount Laurel, N.J. "Tapes can break, making them unusable; backups and restores are slower than other methods; and tape drives capable of handling large amounts of data are quite expensive."

Following are the four modern backup methods that Mr. Leibrandt and Mr. Meyhoefer recommend:

Compared with early floppies that held a maximum of 1.4 megabytes (MB) of data, CDs can hold as much as 800 MB. DVDs can hold upwards of 4.7 gigabytes (GB). (A GB is 1,000 megabytes.) There are few sets of medical practice records that cannot be accommodated by CDs or especially DVDs.

A single DVD with its massive storage capacity can be bought for around $1.25; CDs cost only pennies each. Most new computers now come with CD/DVD drives built in.

According to Mr. Leibrandt, understand that disks have disadvantages. Some users have reported that some disks became unreadable after a few uses; others were readable only in the drives in which they were created.

Mr. Meyhoefer considers disks a good short-term solution, but doesn't recommend them for long-term archival purposes.

"Disks are fine for transporting data from one place to another," he says, "but users should keep in mind that just one scratch can make a disk unusable."