Therapists, too, Should Prepare for Y2K Problem

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

January/February 1999


NOTE: This is an expanded version of the article that appeared in The National Psychologist

Welcome to the New Year and begin the countdown to January 1, 2000. If you have caught recent 60 Minutes, CNN or USA Today reports, you may be aware that in about 360 days a potential crisis of major proportions looms. Dubbed the Y2K (short for Year 2000) problem, people are just now starting to realize what experts have been saying for years: computerized technology faces a major problem when the clock turns from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000.

Most psychologists to whom I have talked figure that they are safe from any problems either because they don’t use a computer in their practices, they use software from companies with solid reputations or they have (falsely) interpreted the problem as being one that applies only to larger businesses. After studying this issue extensively, I have come to the conclusion that EVERYONE needs to confront Y2K starting today.

First, let me tell you what is making businesses spend upwards of $1 trillion to handle Y2K, with $600 million spent before January 1st to assess and fix Y2K problems and the rest to deal with the aftermath (including anticipated legal fees). When computer languages were first developed, memory was expensive and took much more room than it does now, so programmers conserved as much space as possible. They opted to record the date as MM/DD/YR with month, day and year each allotted two numbers. For month and day this posed no problem, and representing the year as only the last two digits seemed fine at this time. Thus, when the computer read 80, it automatically put a 19 in front of it to make the year 1980. The problem comes with the change from 1999 to 2000. When these computers go to record 2000 they will only use the last two digits: "00". Unfortunately, when the 19 is added, the computer will think that it is the year 1900.

Your PC has two important parts that deal with date and time. Each time your computer is booted up, the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) contacts the Real Time Clock (RTC), an internal, battery-powered device that keeps a permanent record of the time, even when the computer is off. If you have a Pentium, running Windows 98 or NT you should be okay. Windows 95 may have some Y2K problems. For updates and patches, check out Microsoft’s web site at www.microsoft.com.

If you have an earlier PC or operating system you might experience the Crouch-Echlin Effect. Jace Crouch found that when you set an older computer (286, 386, 486) to a few minutes before midnight on December 31st and then shut it down and boot it up again a few minutes later, strange things happened. On about 30% of the computers tested, they found clocks speeding up, and changing dates and times, all seemingly randomly. The only constant in these computers is that they had what is called a "Non-Buffered RTC." So, if you are using an older computer, you might want to consider getting a new one that uses a buffered RTC (any Pentium will do).

By the way, Apple computers – Macintosh, Performa, PowerPC – are free of any Y2K problem due to their handling of the date and time.

So, why is this Y2K such a big problem for you?

Many computer programs, both mainframe- and PC-based, use the date and time in calculations. If the computer misreads the date as January 1, 1900, strange problems can occur. Suppose that you deposit your weekly collections at your bank on 1/1/2000. If the bank computer reads that as 1/1/1900 it will check its records to find your account and discover that you had no account in 1900. Who knows what it will do with the deposit!

What parts of your practice may pose potential Y2K problems? First, take a look at the computer programs you use. Billing, e-mail, Internet connection, databases and other software use the date and time. If your billing program or service misreads the date, it may cause miscalculations or it may simply freeze up. Second, you must consider that any device that you use in your practice might have a computer inside. Your telephone and your cellular phone, pager, voice-mail system, clock, VCR, microwave and more all have what are called "embedded computers." Even your office’s heating, air conditioning and elevators have embedded computers. Embedded computers are small, single task chips, hardwired into a device. There are 25 to 40 billion different ones worldwide and estimates are that between 50 and 400 million will fail.

Third, you need to consider anyone with whom you do business. Do you outsource your billing? Do you mail assessments to be scored? Do you deal with insurance or managed care companies? Are all of the computers that these companies use Y2K compliant? According to a recent study of government agency computers, most are likely not. A November 24, 1998 story in USA Today reported that while the Small Business Administration, Social Security Administration and National Science Foundation all got "A" grades on their compliance, the Justice Department, Health and Human Services and the State Department all got "F" grades while the Defense Department got a "D-." The Social Security Administration started dealing with their Y2K issues in 1987 while most others started in 1997! Latest estimates of United States companies is that at least one-third will not be ready by January 1. Estimates of Asian and European companies’ readiness are bleak with over two-thirds assumed to have major problems with Y2K.

What can you do? In my book "TechnoStress" we tell every small business to develop an Emergency Techno-Crash Plan. This requires listing each piece of technology in the practice and what you will do if (and when) it crashes. Create a similar Y2K Crash Plan for your business. List each technology product you use and each company you work with including model number, company address, phone, and web site. Take time in the first quarter of 1999 to contact each vendor and assess whether their product or system is Y2K compliant. First try their web site as many companies are including a statement to this effect. If you can’t find anything at the web site check their annual report (usually on the web site) which is now required by the SEC to make a statement about their Y2K readiness. If they do not cover your specific product and model, call the company and ask to speak to the person in charge of their Y2K plan. By the way, to find a company web site, go to www.infoseek.com and type url: name of company (full or partial). The url tells Infoseek that you want the words following to appear in the web site name or title.

When you have gathered the information, it is imperative that you have a plan. If you feel from your assessment that a technology may have problems, consider upgrading or changing vendors. Check your plan and decisions again every three months to update your options.

Here are several more pieces of advice. If you use a phone that plugs into the wall socket for its power, get an old phone that works off batteries (like that Princess phone you have in storage). Keep it handy to plug in if the power fails because the electric company makes extensive use of computer systems that may not all be Y2K compliant. Keep your cell phone battery charged (and possibly buy a spare). If power goes out you will want to use your cell phone to keep in touch – make the cellular provider a part of your Y2K plan and check their compliance. In addition, for any company that sends a statement indicating that they are holding money that belongs to you (banks, brokerage houses, etc.), gather printed statements for the last 2-3 months of 1999 and keep them with your plan. This will be your proof if their computers have any glitches. You might also consider purchasing a program that scans your computer for potential Y2K software problems. I have heard that Norton 2000 (Symantec, 877-469-7467, www.symantec.com) and Check2000PC Deluxe (Greenwich Mean Time, 800-216-5545, www.gmt-2000.com) are both helpful. Your local computer store should sell both and others for under $50.

Finally, recognize that as we get closer, people may start to panic. The media may create an unprecedented scare. The 60 Minutes special report indicated that the government is already printing lots of extra money to deal with an anticipated reaction of converting bank accounts, securities, bonds, etc. into cash. In a recent survey of over 1,500 Information Technology professionals, 38% said they intended to convert all their investments to cash. And one of the most often read and quoted experts, Ed Yardeni who is Chief Financial Analyst for New York’s Deutshe Bank Securities, asserts that there is a 70% chance of a global recession of the magnitude of the one during the 1973/1974 oil crisis where the market dropped 42% and we had to wait in long lines for scarce, expensive gasoline. Other experts, like Dr. Gary North urge people to plan for the worst and stock up on canned goods, buy wood stoves, and more. If these experts are this convinced, your clients might be, too. Use the table included with this article to become informed. I will update you on this problem either through The National Psychologist or my web site (www.technostress.com) as we count down to the new millennium.

Y2K Web Sites

Description of Web Site Expert

www.garynorth.com

Gloom and doom, survivalist approach

www.Yardeni.com

Chief economist at major New York securities firm

www.yourdon.com

Author and expert on Y2K

www.year2000.com

Peter de Jager –Earliest expert on Y2K problems


Copyright, 1998, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $30 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.


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