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Y2K Medical Concerns

If you have a medical problem, or care for someone who does, all the talk about possible Year 2000 computer failures may sound a little scary.

Don't worry, say federal health officials and doctors responsible for safeguarding consumers. Doctors have operated right through hurricanes, using battery-operated lights if they have to. They know how to treat people without the help of computer-operated gadgets.

The nation's hospitals have spent $8 billion preparing for Y2K. Aside from FDA-monitored medical machines, remember hospitals are prepared for the unexpected every day, says Rick Wade of the American Hospital Association.

Repeated checks of the nation's medical equipment have uncovered no serious problems since very few medical devices actually need to know what year it is to work. There are plenty of prescription drugs, so consumers should not hoard.

"We'll be prepared," says Dr. Donald Palmisano, a New Orleans surgeon and trustee of the American Medical Association. "The most important thing right now is for people not to panic."

Consumers can ask their doctors if they and local hospitals have prepared for Y2K, Palmisano advised, and take some prudent steps to ensure they're ready for any medical situation, like keeping records of insurance claims and lists of medications handy.

Here, in question and answer form, is a look at some common Y2K health questions:

Q. Will my pacemaker stop working on Jan. 1? What if I'm in the hospital under anesthesia?

A. Pacemakers and anesthesia machines "could care less about what day it is," said Dr. David Feigal of the Food and Drug Administration. They measure time second-to-second or hour-to-hour and will keep right on ticking as the century turns.

The FDA has found no device implanted into people that causes any Y2K concern.

Some other medical machines do have computer chips that use a date, but a recent FDA audit concluded those that pose risks to patients have been fixed. Some radiation equipment, for instance, calculates patient's radiation dose based on their age, something easy to fix with a software change. Patients can ask their radiation technician if that was done. "The answer should be either, 'No, our system doesn't use that kind of calculation,' or 'Yes...we've double-checked and it calculated your age right,'" Feigal said.

Q. Will home medical equipment, like glucose monitors, stop working on Jan. 1?

A. Some sophisticated home medical machines keep dated records of readings. The date is only a recording mechanism - your glucose monitor will still read blood sugar, even if the date is wrong, Feigal explained. He calls this just a nuisance, but says consumers can call the manufacturer the name and number should be on the machine to ask what to expect.

Q. What if I need an ambulance?

A. If you dial 911, "someone will answer," pledged Mark Adams of the National Emergency Number Assocition, which next week will release a study of 911 readiness. Some 911 call centers, usually operated by local governments, may not have fixed all their programs - you may have to tell the operator your address instead of the computer immediately spotting it - but you'll get help, Adams said. Anyone concerned could keep the local police number by the phone too.

Q. What about my medical records?

A. The vast majority of doctors still use paper medical records. If yours uses computerized records, there probably is a paper copy too, but ask your doctor if he or she is Y2K compliant, Palmisano said.

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