Waiting lists, patient records and even intensive care monitoring equipment could all fall victim to what has been dubbed "Millennium meltdown" - the failure of computer equipment because the machines will be unable to cope with the date change in 2000.
Many computer systems in use in Britain have not been written to recognise the century change, and there is concern that they will fail to recognise what is happening when the two digits turn to 00. The problem for the NHS is caused by chips imbedded in their machines which act as "reminder notes", informing the computer it is due for a maintenance check. Should chips fail to recognise the double digit 00 in 2000, or assume the equipment has not been updated since 1900, it may simply shut down.
The NHS, along with many other companies, has to update its systems by 11.59pm on 31 December 1999. An NHS task force has been set up to determine how to pre-empt a disaster.
A spokesman for the NHS Executive said: "There's no telling how a computer chip will react to a date it wasn't expecting. It may affect lists for breast cancer screening where women who have not had a clear scan are supposed to return for a second scan but the computer will say they have already had it, or don't need it."
A source in the Department of Health said: "There is a big question mark over the funding. But it is up to trusts and health authorities to realign their finances to do this. There isn't any more money in the pot."
Philip Hunt, director of the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts, admitted funding was a concern and there would be a squeeze on care. "There isn't any extra money. Patient services will be affected," he said. But he pledged that vital medical care would be safeguarded against any problems.
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