The University Record, March 18, 1998

Vaccinating the Health System against the millennium bug

Preventing problems in the Health System's electronic equipment could be a big headache, but personnel in the Health System will prioritize what needs to be taken care of, making sure that anything having to do with life support receives top priority. U-M Photo Services file photo of the emergency room by Bob Kalmbach


By Kristen Woodward
Health System Public Relations

Nostradamus may not have seen it coming, but computer experts have been predicting it for years: at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve 1999, mainframes and PCs around the world are in danger of crashing. The Health System's computerized infrastructure is equally vulnerable to this much-publicized programming nightmare, known in technology circles as the "millennium bug."

"In addition to software, any computer-driven equipment that has a computer chip in it could potentially be affected," says Mike McGill, who recently left his position as the Health System's chief information officer. "We're talking air-conditioning systems, cash registers, radiation-therapy equipment, elevators, phones--the list is very long."

To avoid a digital Armageddon capable of paralyzing everything from ECG management systems to patient-billing and scheduling systems, the Health System will be investing at least $11 million during the next two years on its own form of preventive medicine, McGill says. The goal: to ensure that the Health System's exposure to the nasty millennium bug will result in nothing worse than a dull, virtual headache come New Year's Day 2000.

Overseeing this effort is the Year 2000 Steering Committee, a 10-member task force that includes representatives from information technology, operations, purchasing, facilities and finance. The group also is sharing experiences with and getting outside help from consultants.

Since they began meeting formally last summer, McGill and others in the group have completed an inventory of all software and hardware purchased by the UMHS that might be susceptible to the year-2000, or "Y2K," problem. The group is now busy categorizing the areas that need to be evaluated and prioritizing the order in which they will be addressed.

"At the top of our list is anything that has to do with life support," McGill says, adding that first-priority areas should be "'Y2K-ready' by the summer of 1999, to allow for testing of applications that use future dates, such as patient scheduling."

The group has identified about 10,000 work stations and 4,000 pieces of software, all of which must be evaluated, tested and reprogrammed or replaced, if necessary. The group also is in the process of contacting all major vendors of financial-systems software, medical and office equipment, and office automation and building systems purchased by the Health System.

"We're looking to our vendors to come in and help us determine what needs to be done to get ready for the year 2000," says committee member Tony Denton, associate director for operations. "If they believe we'll have an issue, we're checking to see what plans they're making to resolve concerns."

While the Health System's major software vendors will be responsible for retooling programs that handle vast amounts of data, such as patient accounting, McGill anticipates hiring additional software engineers to help test and reprogram smaller, customized computer systems in use throughout the Health System, many of which have yet to be identified.

"It's clear we're going to need some extra help," McGill says, referring to not only fixing these systems but finding them. Of biggest concern is the so-called "home-grown" software that employees have programmed themselves, and any date-sensitive equipment that wasn't purchased through the University, such as computers purchased with grant money.

"The bottom line," Denton says, "is that if the equipment in your area has a computer chip that reads (and makes calculations with) dates, we have to know whether that system will be operational in the year 2000."

This article originally appeared in the Hospitals STAR, a newsletter for Health System employees.