Area's hospitals getting ready for Y2K

March 28, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

A computer malfunction in a back room at Washington County Hospital last summer shut down a network that routes information to and from about 2,000 devices.

Patients never noticed there was a problem. Backup systems went to work immediately.

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For administrators, the glitch indicated the hospital is prepared to handle any computer problems that could result when the new millennium arrives.

Hospitals across the Tri-State area have been working for months to ensure that their thousands of computer systems and medical devices will survive the year 2000 problem.

All predicted they will be ready long before the new year.

The effort was prompted because many computer programs record dates as two-digit abbreviations to save space. When computers - and computer chips in thousands of different tools - read "00," many fear the machines will interpret them as 1900 instead of 2000 and malfunction.


Few industries are as vulnerable as the health care industry, according to a U.S. Senate committee that studied the problem.

Daunting task

Area hospitals have spent millions of dollars identifying, testing, fixing and replacing equipment that could pose a problem.

They also are writing contingency plans, trying to take into account possible failures of systems that are beyond their control, such as Medicare, which is responsible for 40 to 50 percent of all payments to hospitals. If Y2K problems in the federal government disrupt Medicare payments, hospitals' cash flow could be interrupted.

Most hospitals said they plan to beef up staffing on New Year's Eve and some have canceled elective surgery near the holiday or are considering doing so.

The sheer size and complexity of hospitals make fixing the Y2K problem daunting, according to hospital officials who have worked on the problem.

Washington County Health System, for instance, includes the hospital and 17 other locations, including Robinwood Medical Center, a home health center and doctors' offices.

It has roughly 2,500 employees, more than two dozen computer systems and more than 2,500 electronic devices.

All area hospitals have been racing against the clock in an attempt to examine their equipment for Y2K problems, said Sarah Johnson, director of quality, risk and management utilization at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Ranson, W.Va.

"It's really a massive task, particularly with a hospital. Just about everything has a computer chip," she said. But Johnson and other hospital officials say they are making progress.

"Things look like they're on schedule. Way back when we started, I was not hopeful," she said.

Jim Eberhart, Washington County Hospital's director of clinical engineering, said none of the hospital's biomedical devices will stop working because of Y2K problems. These include equipment like kidney dialysis machines and devices that monitor patients' vital signs.

About 46 devices in the hospital system still have date problems, Eberhart said.

Some will be fixed with a software upgrade. Equipment that has embedded chips is harder to fix, but Eberhart said the chips are programmable to some extent. Technicians can change the date after the year 2000.

But most of the embedded chips in hospital devices do not have a clock function, Eberhart said.

Those that do may record incorrect dates, but will not stop performing their critical functions, he said.

For instance, defibrillators may record the wrong date but will not stop performing their life-saving functions, Eberhart said.

"I've not even heard of a single device that's going to up and quit working," he said.

Eberhart said the hospital will not fix devices where the date function is not used.

Washington County Hospital officials found more fault with their computer communications network, which stores information as varied accounting, patient medical records and laboratory reports.

About three-fourths of the software systems had Y2K problems, according to Carey O. Leverett, the hospital system's director of information services.

Leverett, who has been working on the millennium problem since 1995, said 98 percent of the hospital's equipment has been tested.

Of the 30 major computer applications, only three are not ready but will be in April, Leverett said. They are:

- A scanning system for patient records not kept on the main system.

- A scheduling system for nurses.

- A system that provides information to employees.

Vexing vendors

Hospitals deal with thousands of manufacturers, suppliers and insurers. Each has its own Y2K issues.

Many of the biomedical devices, for instance, require certification from the companies that built them. But firms are not always willing to give it.

Only 500 of 2,700 companies responded to a request from the Food and Drug Administration, for instance, according to a report issued by the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem.

Johnson said 30 percent of questionnaires that Jefferson Memorial sent to companies were returned.

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