Health officials dispute Y2K reports

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON | March 10, 1999


WASHINGTON (March 10, 1999) -- In the wake of government reports blasting

the healthcare industry for lack of Y2K preparedness, many healthcare

officials argue that they're on schedule to be ready.

Large hospitals are taking inventory of computer hardware and software,

medical devices, and communication systems that could pose potential

problems when computers roll over from 1999 to the year 2000.

"There will be surprises," said Pam McNutt, chief information officer for

the Methodist Hospitals of Dallas. "I don't doubt that. But major

healthcare institutions have this issue well under control. The key is to

take nothing for granted and to test every device. If you're not certain

about something, isolate it or develop a contingency plan."

By law, hospitals must have disaster preparedness plans, including working

generators in case of blackouts, food and water supplies, and backup

communication systems. "We've had our systems go down from time to time.

Everyone knows the drill," said McNutt. "The tricky thing about Y2K is that

the drill may last longer."

Modern hospitals have thousands of pieces of equipment operated by computer

chips, including medication pumps, heart defibrillators, EKG monitors,

x-ray machines, and even thermometers. Since hospitals operate like

miniature cities, they may face more Y2K challenges than most other public

service providers, corporations, or agencies. In addition to medical

devices, hospitals are testing pharmaceutical suppliers, heating systems,

elevators, kitchen appliances, patient records, and other ancillary but

vital patient services. In some cases, hospitals have to wait until

equipment vendors release Y2K compliant upgrades.

Although a hospital's internal phone lines may be Y2K compliant, officials

are still concerned about untested external lines that could interrupt

communication. Methodist Hospitals of Dallas plans to have cellular phones

and "runners" ready to transmit essential calls and information. Other

hospitals plan to adopt "just in case" measures around Dec. 31, such as

scheduling additional staff to be "on-call," cancelling elective surgery,

and leasing extra cellular phones or radios.

A recent Government Accounting Report expressed concern that the healthcare

industry is not prepared for Y2K. It said that Medicare and Medicaid health

benefits could be delayed, miscalculated, or unpaid because the Health Care

Financing Administration, a branch of the Department of Health and Human

Services which helps pay medical bills for more than 70 million people, was

not ready.

Medicare expects to process more than a billion claims and pay $288 billion

in benefits annually by the year 2000. Medicaid provides about $160 billion

in health coverage for 36 million low-income people.

The report also said that 90 percent of doctor's offices, as well as many

smaller hospitals, are not prepared for the Year 2000 rollover.

But McNutt said people should not lose perspective. "Say a doctor's office

isn't ready. Well, let's dissect that a little bit. Most doctors' offices

are not full of sophisticated life-support equipment. If they can't get a

bill out, they may resort to manual billing. If their x-ray machine doesn't

work, they may have to send patients somewhere else for a day or two. They

may lose their appointment schedule. But nobody is going to die. That's why

I think that whole statistic about doctors' offices is being overplayed."

Other healthcare providers, such as family care clinics, assisted living

homes, and adult day care centers are also inventorying equipment, meeting

with vendors about upgrading hardware and software, and making contingency

plans.

St. Joseph's of the Pines, which provides assisted care, adult and child

day care, and family care clinics in 24 counties throughout North Carolina,

has a committee that focuses on potential Y2K-related problems. "We're

preparing to provide services even if certain systems go down," said Holly

McGaw, who works in the information management department. "For example,

how will patients communicate with nursing staff if phones are down? We're

looking at walkie-talkies and CB radios."

McGaw said that St. Joseph's 1,700 employees are already knowledgeable

about providing services after a disaster. A recent ice storm was a good

test, she said. "When we realized that roads were closed and power lines

were down, some of our employees visited patients on horseback," she said.

Retirement communities, which many times include healthcare clinics, are

also taking steps to prepare -- while trying to reassure concerned

residents. "We're planning to coordinate informational meetings with

residents and inform them about what could happen," said Larry Marstellar,

resident services representative at the Westbury United Methodist

Retirement Community in Meadville, Pa. Westbury houses about 500 residents

in 50 villas, two apartment buildings, and an assisted living facility.

Marstellar said that the community is planning for Y2K as if for any other

disaster, and is also following recommendations offered in seminars

sponsored by the county and city emergency management officials. "We are

going to hope for the best but prepare for the worst," he said.

But Pam McNutt cautioned that preparing for the worst doesn't mean the

public should panic. "Many people are worried about medical supplies or

prescriptions. But if people start stockpiling medications, then there will

be a shortage. In other words, this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy."

"If people are in a state of panic, I can just see someone bringing a loved

one on a ventilator to a hospital doorstep on New Year's Eve because

they're scared the ventilator will stop working. We've got to keep testing

the equipment and educating the public. I think we're in a good place right

now."

Posted March 10, 1999


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