You see this being reported all as one big fizzle, the story that didn't happen, but it's not a fizzle. It's a great success story. All the work that we put in paid off."-Mark McLaughlin, spokesman for Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital, Milwaukee, quoted by the Associated Press on the Y2K aftermath.
Mr. McLaughlin (no relation to this writer) is closer to the truth than many of the pundits who have taken the cynical viewpoint in recent days. Some have suggested the whole affair was simply a big fraud perpetrated by consultants hungering for profits and news media types hungering for a juicy story.
After all the warnings and breathless stories of impending doom, it's easy to see how some people might seize the opportunity to pronounce Y2K a total sham. And you can understand how some might believe that the $8 billion U.S. hospitals poured into fixing Y2K problems and the $450 billion spent by industries and governments worldwide were wasted.
But this is like saying that we are wasting money on a polio vaccine because no one gets polio any more. The prevention effort may have been more frenzied and expensive than it needed to be, but it worked. American executives took the warnings seriously and headed off serious mishaps. To do otherwise in an industry in which mistakes can kill would have been a dereliction of duty.
We have to remember that the threat was real. Several computer-related problems were reported in hospitals overseas, and a couple of noncritical glitches cropped up in the U.S. despite comprehensive sweeps.
American hospital executives and staffers should be commended for their diligence so far. Unfortunately, major tests and challenges remain. For example, upcoming hospital billings will show whether the financial programs were debugged. This is a function that is notoriously bad in the best of times. Imagine how thrilled your patients will be when they get notices that their accounts have been overdue since 1900 and their names are being forwarded to collection agencies.
And then there is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which will force hospitals to standardize and secure electronic healthcare transmissions. This could require another mammoth and costly overhaul of computer systems in the next two years.
Let's hope these problems lead to more stories that fizzle.