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Year 2000 bug could be dangerous for hospitals, experts warn

graphic August 10, 1998
Web posted at: 9:48 p.m. EDT (0148 GMT)

From Health Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Machines that help hearts start beating again, monitors that keep watch over the critically ill and ventilators that keep tiny babies breathing are all at risk of malfunctioning due to the year 2000 computer bug.

Experts say if hospitals don't act now to correct computer programming, an alarming number of pieces of medical equipment may malfunction -- all because computer makers failed to plan for the next century. The key problem is that when you enter "00" for the year 2000, many computers get confused.

"We talked to one organization that found that their intensive care monitoring system would shut down on January 1, 2000," said year 2000 consultant Joel Ackerman. "That's a biggie. We worry about that.

"I would say that patient care is definitely at risk," he added.

Many hospitals have done nothing to begin to fix the problem.

But experts say Egleston Children's Hospital in Atlanta is ahead of most others. Workers there are checking every piece of equipment to see which have embedded, data-dependent computer chips.

"You need to check actually the entire hospital, all the intensive care units, all the different floors -- the children's unit," said Marion Powell of Egleston.

If Egleston ignored the problem, about 10 percent of its machines would be unusable on January 1, 2000.

"When you start doing the math, you realize that even if it's a very small percent of the equipment affected, the potential for the problem is conceivably enormous," said Dr. Kenneth Kizer of the Veterans Health Administration.

Many more devices could keep working, but with serious flaws. For example, entering a child's birthday as 12-31-00 could register as 12-31-1900. That would result in computing a dose of medicine for a 100-year-old person -- possibly fatal for a child.

There are solutions. The first step for hospitals is getting help from the companies that make the equipment. But it's not always easy.

The Veterans Administration wrote letter after letter to the 1,500 companies that supply them with equipment for its 172 hospitals nationwide. One-third of the companies never wrote back.

"I can think of one, for example, that we've done a quarter of a billion dollars' worth of business with, which hadn't responded to us after four separate queries," Kizer said.

After taking a beating on Capitol Hill recently from angry senators, equipment manufacturers say they are becoming more responsive.

"There are companies that are cooperating. They're moving ahead; they're taking this issue very seriously," said Alan Magazine of the Health Industry Manufacturers Association.

Year 2000 experts say the medical community, far behind others who depend on computers, needs to speed things up, because this is one deadline that can't be moved.

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