Armageddon or global challenge?

The countdown to year 2000 has begun. It remains to be seen how much chaos the June patient recall and the ultimate December 31 deadline will cause dentists.

The countdown to year 2000 has begun. It remains to be seen how much chaos the June patient recall and the ultimate December 31 deadline will cause dentists.

Dan Richmond

Many theories and opinions exist about Armegeddon - what the end of the world will be like. As we move closer to the new millennium, Hollywood continues to release movies that vividly portray this event.

Today, there are just as many theories about the effect the Year 2000 problem will have on a local, national, and global level. The spectrum runs the entire gamut, ranging from people who have heard very little to those who are building secured compounds in the countryside or desert where they can hide when the December 31st deadline hits and computers "crash" worldwide.

Regardless of the outcome, there certainly will be some major challenges to overcome. This is the first time in history that the world population has had the same problem to solve regardless of age, culture, or geographical location with the exact same deadline.

Veteran software programmers have been blazing the millennial trail in recent years for solutions to the original problem. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the computer world was young and memory was expensive, programmers developed a convention for marking the passage of time. It`s the same system most people use to date their checks: two digits for the day, two for the month, and two for the year. Dropping the "19" from the year was convenient, and it saved precious memory.

Programmers knew that if the two-digit system still was in use by the Year 2000 that computers would either think they`d jumped 100 years to 1900 or see `00` and malfunction. However, the programmers and their managers were certain that this code would be ancient history by that time.

But the code remained. The two-digit year became a standard and was used as the heart of Cobol - the Common Business Oriented Language that still serves as the digital workhorse of commerce and industry. It also was embedded into microchips found in everything from coffee makers to traffic lights. For years, the Y2K problem continued to grow behind the scenes while the clock kept ticking.

Millions of Americans have already gotten a small taste of critical system failure. When the onboard control system of the Galaxy IV communications satellite failed on Tuesday, May 19, 1998, the outage temporarily crippled U.S. pager networks, several broadcast news operations, and even credit-card verification systems.

Most of the disruptions were brief. But doctors who use pagers as a lifeline with patients and colleagues were forced to set up camp in hospitals and offices. The failure of one satellite threw a wrench into the mechanisms of modern life, perhaps providing a peek at what life may be like at the dawn of the new millennium.

The dental industry is no exception to the rapidly impending Year 2000 deadlines. Dentists must prepare for the June (Year 2000 patient recall) deadline as well as December 31st with everyone else. It may not be Armageddon, but it certainly will impact dental offices and their computer-related systems.

The media and computer experts have been talking about this issue for more than a year and yet many offices will risk waiting until it`s too late. Regardless of what type of computers and software are being used, at least 60,000 dental offices nationwide are currently not Year-2000 compliant.

Dentists generally have not been actively working towards becoming Year-2000 compliant. The Gartner Group, a U.S.-based consulting firm specializing in the Y2K bug, recently estimated that 180 billion lines of code need to be examined and that 20 to 30 percent of all firms worldwide have not yet started preparing for Y2K.

The Gartner Group rated the overall efforts of industrialized nations on a scale of zero to five, where five is total compliance on all systems. The highest scorers on the scale, including the United States, Canada, and Australia, rated somewhere between two and three - a score that suggests they have completed an inventory of Y2K vulnerabilities, but not yet developed a comprehensive remediation plan.

Doctors who create a Year-2000 plan for their practice may avoid all internal operational problems. These could include everything from loss of on-line insurance billing to malfunction of entire computer systems. At the very least, this will cause loss of productivity and practice revenues.

Externally, you`ll need to contact each of your vendors and suppliers to see that they are Y2K compliant and/or have a plan for becoming so. Based on the responses you receive, you`ll want to adjust your operations to allow for any problems these suppliers may encounter.

Several months prior to the turn of the century is the time for you to purchase additional supplies as a precautionary measure. You will want to plan to have enough critical supplies and equipment on hand to run your practice. This is one more way for you to avoid becoming a Year-2000 statistic.

Checking computer hardware and software for Year-2000 compliant capability is a challenge on its own. It is extremely critical to test all systems that may be at risk. Personal computers as recent as the 486s may not be Year 2000 compliant. To make matters worse, even when you confirm that your hardware is compliant you may have software installed on it that doesn`t meet the guidelines.

There`s a wide range of other products from elevator systems to coffee makers to traffic lights that also may be potential targets. Essentially any electronic appliance or system with a day/date or time function must be factored into the scenario.

You certainly will find a number of companies to assist you with testing your systems and making them Year-2000 compliant.

One very good starting place, especially if you or your staff will be testing your systems is NSTL Corp`s site on the Internet (www.nstl.com). In addition to providing user-friendly information, NSTL offers free software that can be downloaded to help you check the computers/systems in your practice.

NSTL is a CMP Media Inc. company and is the leading independent testing facility for the computer industry. Founded in 1983, NSTL pioneered the use of objective, comparative testing of PC and LAN hardware and software. NSTL offers custom compatibility, certification, performance, usability, BIOS and comparison testing services to hardware developers, software publishers, government agencies, and corporations throughout the world.

NSTL also conducts testing for business and trade publications worldwide, including Business Week, Data Communications and BYTE. It was the world`s first independent organization dedicated exclusively to testing the functionality, usability, and performance of hardware and software. Headquartered in suburban Philadelphia, NSTL also has labs in Canada, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Argentina, and the UK.

NSTL`s Year-2000 Hardware Compliance Program is an open industry standard to verify proper date handling by PC systems during the roll-over to the Year 2000. The year 2000 Hardware Compliance Program provides end-users and system manufacturers with independent assurance that a PC system properly transitions to the Year 2000.

Using YMARK2000, an NSTL-developed testing tool, you can test each of your personal computers for their ability to support the change to the year 2000. YMARK2000 tests the BIOS and the real-time clock`s functionality. Operating systems and applications must be tested separately.

If any of your systems are not Y2K-compliant, NSTL recommends you contact the system`s manufacturer for a BIOS upgrade. (It is the BIOS that is responsible for supporting the next century.) Most vendors have Year-2000 sections on their web sites, including BIOS upgrades that can be downloaded. If an upgrade is not available and you are working with date-sensitive data, the next best solution is to replace the system with one that does support the 21st century.

It is possible to install special programs that will fix the problem, but these programs must be executed every time the computer is booted. Unfortunately, the programs will be susceptible to unsuspecting persons believing they are not needed and removing them. If supporting the 21st century is a must, this solution is not desirable.

You can manually set the date every time you turn on the system or have the computer automatically retrieve the date from a network. With this solution, the drawbacks are that you may forget to set the date, accidentally enter the wrong date, or be unable to connect to the network.

The Year-2000 problem is the most serious global threat to finance, commerce, and government operations in modern times. As a society, we`re learning how much we rely on computers and computer-related technology to run our businesses and governments.

Looking at the problem through today`s eyes is misleading. For example, a Pentium computer on an executive`s desk, probably has more memory and storage than all the machines in a major city in the 1960s. In the past, programmers had to find ways of squeezing every bit out of the system.

Those who developed the IBM mainframes never expected their systems and software to be in use at the turn of the century, 30 years away. The average life of a computer system was only 10 years. The system developers were trapped by their own success as memory soon became less and less expensive.

One more lesson the Year 2000 is providing is that the foundation of modern high-tech commerce and industry is very fragile. We have never experienced a global problem on the scale of Year 2000. The "information society" is not built on the firm rock of the "industrial society," where tangible assets like factories, machines, iron, steel, bricks, and mortar were the norm. Today we have information, EDI, the Web, and electronic transfer of our wealth.

The "drop dead" deadline for the world is December 31, 1999, but for dentists the ball drops in June (or earlier) when Year-2000 patient recall begins. If nothing else, the thought of your system crashing earlier should be the catalyst for making sure the systems in your practice become Y2K-compliant.

Several other "trigger dates" before and after New Years may cause interruption or malfunction. They include April 9, 1999 (4/9/99), September 9, 1999 (9/9/99), and both January 10, 2000 (1/10/2000) and October 10, 2000 (10/10/2000) which will require 7 and 8 digits of space, respectively.

By reading this article, you`ve already achieved the first goal of becoming aware or more informed about the Year 2000 problem. Next, you will want to assess your office by looking to see which computers and machines may be affected. And finally, you or a computer consultant will need to test each of the systems to make sure they won`t default with dates ending in 99 or 00.

It remains to be seen how much chaos June patient recall for the Year 2000 and the ultimate December 31 deadline will cause dentists. Doctors who prepare by testing their systems and checking with vendors and suppliers in advance clearly will save themselves from suffering many direct consequences. Others who delay or do not prepare by testing and upgrading systems to become compliant may be writing their own personal version of Armageddon ... or at the very least causing themselves a big, painful headache!

More in Practice