While one of our clients, a computerized sawbones, was in the Mediterranean soaking up winter sun, his office ran like clockwork on the automation we'd recommended. Until week two.

Then our phone began ringing off the hook.We weren't surprised. Twice before since installation, this M.D. had taken distant vacations. Twice before, his computer system had rebelled.

We may be the only consultants between Chicago and Minneapolis who install this medical practice management software. We've acquired a standard telephone-line patter. "Describe the symptoms."

Panic was in her voice. "We can't get out our patient bills. It began last night. All of a sudden, the printer started printing nonsense characters and jumbled up our columns of numbers."

We probed deeper. "How many bills did it print before the problem started?"

Silence. Then: "I didn't think that was important. Probably about 30."

Like a good medico, we think fast when we're charging a buck 67 a minute. We mentally ticked off a bunch of probable causes: Static electricity had sent the printer into convulsions. The printer instructions inside the program had been changed or damaged. The cable between computer and printer had been disturbed.

"Has anybody moved the computer or printer recently?"

"Both. They were taking up too much room so we put them in another part of the office."

Ah ha! The cable became suspect No. 1.

"But we didn't disconnect any equipment. We learned our lesson last time someone pulled a plug and we lost half a day's typing. This time, three of us picked up the whole computer table and moved everything together."

This information relegated the printer cable to last place among suspects. Next we probed for signs of static. There's nothing drier than winter in the upper Midwest!

If you live on a coast, you can't imagine the hazards of running a computer in winter in a dry-aired, carpeted office. After a brisk walk to the coffee pot, a receptionist's panty hose can knock out anything from a $20 memory chip to a $200 processor chip.

Frank doesn't wear panty hose (take note, you readers who've been tricked by his parents' spelling and address your letters, "Dear Madam!"). But last week he picked up a Panasonic phone and his static charge fried the phone's main computer chip.

We'd installed a static guard at the doctor's office. Had it survived the move?

"Oh yes. The table still stands on the anti-static pad, and we reconnected the pad to the electric outlet just like before."

Since none of our first three potential causes had left clear fingerprints at the scene of the crime, we prescribed lab work. "Run the patient statements just as you did yesterday. Keep track of what happens. Then phone back."

An hour later she was on the phone. "The same thing happened again."

What page? "Page 32."

So the printing had gone crazy about the same page both times! That pointed a very suspicious finger at one of the program's data files being used in the printing. If so, it was no big problem. We had ensured a virtually foolproof system for making automatic daily backups. Duplicates of all the office's important files could accurately, inexpensively, and painlessly replace any files damaged during a day's work.

"Was yesterday's backup made before or after the trouble started?"

"After."

Of course! Nobody ever makes backups just before trouble! But not to worry. "Take out the tape with the day before's backups."

"Er . . . there's a slight problem. We just started needing two tapes to handle each backup. Nobody had time to go out and buy two more tapes, so we taped last night's backup right over the night before's."

In plain English, the bad stuff had been copied on top of the good stuff. That meant a consultant from our office would have to drive to the clinic with a diskful of specialized utilities in hand and try to restore the damaged files bit by bit. It would set the clinic back many hundreds of dollars - if a damaged file was the culprit.

But we weren't ready to prosecute just yet. "Let's first try an experiment. Find a big file that you can print out using the Medical Manager program. Be sure it doesn't use any of the same data you use to print your bills. After a few pages have printed, we want you to walk up and down on the carpet and then touch the printer. Let us know what happens."

Half an hour later she was on the phone. "It did it, it did it. It started printing the identical garbage when I touched the printer!"

We suddenly asked if the clinic still had its computer stuff on that all-metal table? "Nope," she replied. "We got rid of it the last time we moved the computer."

We bet that this table had a wooden top. "Yup. How'd ya know?"

We explained that even though the table stood on a grounded pad, the wood kept the computer printer from being grounded!

A check of the data files confirmed it: No files had been corrupted after all. The culprit was static, plain and simple.

We prescribed four new backup tapes (two for need and two for good luck) and a vaporizer or humidifier to cure the static zaps stored up in dry air. We hope all your computer problems are as easy to fix!

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