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The computer glitch known as the year 2000 (Y2K) problem or the Millennium Bug may have a significant, adverse effect on health care in the United States unless providers and the federal government step up their efforts to correct the problem, according to experts speaking at a recent meeting of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Problem in Washington, DC.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) said at the meeting that "this Y2K problem could have the nation's health care system on a respirator" come January 2000. Dodd co-chairs the Senate special committee with Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT). The committee is addressing the potential problems posed when computers that were built years ago fail to recognize the year 2000 because they are programmed to recognize only the last two digits of the year, assuming the first two are 19. Experts are predicting that, if uncorrected, the problem could cause major disruptions in computer systems.
According to a summary of the meeting and the committee findings, Dodd and Bennett noted in the meeting that the health care industry may be hard hit by the computer errors, with loss of medical records and widespread malfunction of computerized IV equipment, backup generators, and dialysis machines. The committee has established that 80% of hospitals are addressing the problem, but only 30% have come up with actual strategies for correcting it within their organizations. Physicians are virtually ignoring the problem, according to the committee findings; 90% have reported doing nothing.
A spokesman for the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told the committee that the Y2K problem could cause some medical devices to fail, but the problem would be limited. The FDA estimates that 2,700 of the country's 16,000 medical device manufacturers have products that might be affected by the Y2K problem. Of those 2,700 companies, only 500 have submitted action plans to the FDA.
(The FDA maintains a list of health care products that may be affected by the Y2K problem. The frequently updated list can be found at the FDA's Web site at http://www.fda.gov.)
The committee heard recommendations from Jennifer Jackson, JD, general counsel and vice president for clinical services at the Connecticut Hospital Association, representing the American Hospital Association. She told the senators the federal government should do more to urge health care providers and medical device manufacturers to work together in beating the Y2K problem. She recommended that the FDA establish a national clearinghouse on the Y2K compliance status of medical devices.
In addition, Jackson asked the senators to establish immunity from liability from Y2K-related adverse events if providers take reasonable steps to address the problem.