Your last-minute job: Alert but don’t alarm patients about Y2K

Fine line between providing just in case’ guidelines and causing fear

While every health care institution across the nation is completing preparations to avoid Y2K problems, patient educators also have some important last-minute tasks.

Although much of the preparation is behind the scenes and involves technical and operational staff, many patient education managers are creating educational sheets for patients. The information is designed to reassure patients that the medical facility is prepared to handle any problems that may occur due to computer malfunctions, and to alert patients about precautions they should be taking. Depending on the information, patients only need to be alerted two weeks to a month before the New Year dawns, so it’s not too late to prepare a handout.

"We don’t want to alarm people, but we want them to know there are some basic precautionary things they should think about which aren’t very different from the way they should manage their health over time, regardless of Y2K," says Carol Maller, MS, RN, CHES, patient education coordinator for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Albuquerque, NM.

These precautions include patients filling prescriptions two weeks before they run out of medications, having a manual alternative to devices that run on electricity (such as oxygen equipment), and having a plan in place for medical emergencies, such as a cellular phone to call for help.

To give patients the necessary information, the patient education department at the VA in Albuquerque helped prepare a simple, one-page sheet. The simplicity of the sheet was meant to show patients that there is really not a lot they need to do differently in preparation for the turn of the century. A more detailed information sheet on medications also was created. (See examples of these information sheets, inserted in this issue.)

The information sheets will be distributed at the VA Medical Center the same way all educational materials are distributed, says Maller. First, staff will be informed there is a new title available and will be given samples of the handout. Staff then will distribute the materials to patients as appropriate. "We don’t put any of our materials out in the medical center, because we want the patient to have an interaction with a health professional," says Maller. In that way, the health professional can individualize the material for a particular patient.

Maller stayed abreast of the Y2K-related information being broadcast by the media. She kept a list of possible Y2K problems mentioned in the media and presented the list to the patient education committee. The committee then began to examine issues related to health care and the critical things people would need to do to carry them through the transition to the New Year in case services were interrupted.

With all the publicity about Y2K in newspapers and on television, the Y2K preparation team at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle decided it would be wise to develop a simple communication piece to give to patients and family members. The major intent of the one-page flyer is to explain that plans are in place for emergencies and if patients have any concerns, they should speak to their health care team.

Making a low-key effort

"We will start to distribute at admission in mid-fall a brief handout acknowledging all the concerns around Y2K and our medical center’s efforts to remedy any problem areas in order to be prepared to provide safe, quality care during the turn of the millennium. It will be a low-key communication effort, but one we hope will address concerns of patients and family members if they should arise," explains Cezanne Garcia, MPH, CHES, manager of patient and family education services at the medical center.

The letter is being distributed in advance of the New Year, because some patients could be admitted to the hospital multiple times, depending on their health care needs. About one week before the New Year, the flyer will be distributed on patients’ meal trays, because these patients most likely will be in the hospital during the holiday.

The second form of distribution is to ensure that patients read the information just in case they did not see the letter in their admission packet. "We want to give people confidence that our system is readying itself and is well-primed and prepared," says Garcia.

How should patients prepare for Y2K?

If the information sheet being created at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City is approved as written, it will provide information on what the hospital has done to prepare as well as information on what patients can do, says Judith Nierenberg, RN, MA, patient education manager at the facility. The center has a series of health guides for patients with about 150 titles written in Spanish and English. A health guide on Y2K is currently being written.

The patient portion instructs patients to fill their prescriptions in advance, have their medical records on hand, make copies of insurance records, and create a sheet with all their vital medical information on it, including their medical conditions and the names of their physicians. It also suggests they list all their medications, what they are for, and who prescribed them. People with medical equipment are advised to contact the manufacturer or their health care provider.

At present, patients do not seem to be too concerned about Y2K problems, says Maller. "We aren’t getting a lot of questions, but that could change as it gets closer to the New Year and also depending on how the media covers it," she says.