Fire Destroys 90 Percent of UNM Medical Records

On June 23, a catastrophic fire broke out at a records storage warehouse at 1301 Broadway NE, north of Mountain Rd. NE, in Albuquerque. The fire burned for more than a day, destroying most of the contents of the building.

The fire continued to smolder until July 3 when the fire reignited and burned for another 26 hours. As a result, firefighters thoroughly soaked the remaining contents to prevent further reignition.

Among the records stored there were most of the patient medical records from the UNM Health Sciences Center (HSC) created prior to 2005 when UNM Hospitals and clinics and the UNM Cancer Center switched to digital electronic record storage. The full extent of the loss is still being determined. All our departments have been asked to assist us in gathering this information and to work with the incident commander to document the loss. The warehouse, owned by a Texas absentee landlord, was leased by a private contractor under contract with the HSC and UNMH to store our records.

The exact cause of this catastrophic fire has not been determined and is still under active investigation, but preliminary reports show that the investigation is focusing on the roof top air conditioner where the fire may have begun and spread rapidly. Temperatures are believed to have reached well over 2000 degrees as the fire totally destroyed everything in its path.

“In order to determine the scope of the damage, UNM HSC activated its emergency operations command (EOC) to address immediate patient care and staff needs and to complete an inventory of the records lost in the fire,” said Catherine Porto, executive director of health information and incident commander. “The incident team continues to meet weekly toensure appropriate resources are in place to address issues related to lost documents and records." After extensive study and review, HSC has now determined that about 90 percent of its patient medical records created prior to 2005 were destroyed either by the fire or by the large amount of water poured on the building to put out the fire.

It’s important to note that although these records were lost, in the past five years, HSC began scanning records into a digital format for storage in its electronic medical records system. The vast majority of the records from patient encounters in the past five years are retrievable electronically.

"We are deeply saddened by this unfortunate event,” said Dr. Paul Roth, UNM executive vice president for Health Sciences. “Our primary focus throughout this project has been and will continue to be the needs of our patients. We will work with the entire faculty and staff of the UNM Health Sciences Center to evaluate the extent of the loss. Had we not dedicated ourselves to switching to a totally digital record system five years ago, this could have been far worse."

The damaged and destroyed records at the warehouse site were secured immediately after the fire was initially extinguished and have been secure ever since. The remains will be disposed of according to the requirements set forth in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

In addition, HSC has developed procedures to inform people who request copies of past medical records that the records were destroyed in the fire and give them a document certifying that fact. HSC deeply regrets any inconvenience caused by this event that was beyond its control.

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