On a rainy June evening, John Richards, DO, got word from a colleague’s daughter that his office parking lot was flooding. Dr. Richards, a family medicine physician who runs a solo practice in Elkview, West Virginia, population 1,222, headed over immediately, accompanied by the son of another staffer. “We were there until almost two in the morning unplugging all the electronics and putting them up as high as we could,” Dr. Richards says. “By the time we were finished, the water in the office was above our knees—it took both of us to push open the front door so we could leave.”
Dr. Richards’ office was badly damaged in the West Virginia floods that left 23 dead last month. In this edited interview, he discusses his experiences and offers tips on safeguarding a practice against natural disasters.
What was the state of your office after the flooding receded?
We ended up with between six and seven feet of water in the office. It destroyed absolutely everything. My practice stored approximately 80% of patient charts electronically and 20% on paper. The paper charts were completely waterlogged and covered with mud, so we disposed of them in a HIPPA-compliant way by having them ground up and incinerated. Luckily, we were able to recover most of the patient records that were stored electronically.
Because I was renting my practice space and my landlord didn’t have flood insurance, getting insurance to cover the damage has been challenging. But we just applied for a small-business grant through the state of West Virginia that, if we get it, would provide up to $10,000 toward rebuilding.
What disaster preparedness advice would you offer other DOs?
Definitely stay away from office space that’s located in a floodplain, as mine was. This experience also really illustrated the beauty of electronic medical records. Before the flooding, using EMRs was helpful in debulking the practice, but now I’m planning to work toward storing 100% of patient records electronically.
Where are you practicing now?
Two colleagues in Kanawha City, which is about 20 miles away, have been kind enough to let me have some office space in their building. That’s been very helpful because it allows me to stay in touch with patients. I’m making sure they have the medications they need and letting them know they can come in for care if they need to.
Many of my patients live in very rural areas north of Elkview—I’m one of the only physicians within 40 or 50 miles for them, so it was important to me to rebuild my practice near Elkview so they wouldn’t have to travel any further than they already are. Luckily, we’ve found a new office location in the same community and will be reopening after a little remodeling.
The silver lining in this situation is how many people have come forward to offer help. My colleagues in Kanawha City have been so gracious in allowing me to use their space, and others have offered office equipment and furniture for the new practice. I’ve been very impressed and grateful for all the help my staff and I have received.