Healthcare providers entered the new millennium girded for disaster, and they were rewarded with a few, mostly minor Y2K-related glitches on New Year's Day.
However, healthcare information system experts said Jan. 1 was just the beginning: As 2000 unfolds, so will opportunities for problems. For example, computer applications not used daily, such as benchmarking, billing, budgeting and spreadsheet programs, may fail when they're initiated during the year.
"It's too early to call this over. It's like the first inning of a baseball game or first quarter of a football game," said Joel Ackerman, executive director of Rx2000 Solutions Institute, a Minneapolis-based information clearinghouse for hospitals and healthcare systems.
This year is also unusual for a more esoteric reason: It will be the first time since 1600 that a leap year will be observed at the turn of a century. Leap years-when "February's days are 29"-occur every four years during a century and every 400 years at a century's end. Although computers didn't exist during the last century turnover, there are concerns that some equipment may malfunction Feb. 29.
Equipment will be reinspected Feb. 29 at 846-bed Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said Vicky Clevenger, the hospital's administrator of clinical-care services. No Y2K problems were reported at the hospital, she said.
"We've received instructions for manually resetting equipment from any manufacturers that anticipate a (Feb. 29) problem," she said.
Clevenger said she does not believe there will be problems with irregularly used software.
According to Tim Zoph, chairman of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives and vice president of information services at 683-bed Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, the monitoring process has not stopped.
"We'll be keeping our eyes on things for the rest of the year," he said.
The price for all this vigilance appears steep. The American Hospital Association estimated that U.S. hospitals spent $8.2 billion on Y2K compliance issues. However, no one believes hospitals overspent.
"Hospitals made sure they touched all the bases when it came to Y2K," said Richard Wade, the AHA's senior vice president for communications. "It was the first time they sat down for a while to do such a large assessment, and it proved very valuable."
He added that much of the cost was tied to equipment upgrades and replacements that would have been needed eventually anyway, and that many hospitals re-established links with local branches of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and with statewide trauma networks.
"That will be really worth it over time," Wade observed.