U.S.: Medical School Applicants Hit Software Glitches

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Headline: Glitches Stymie Medical School Applicants

Source: New York Times, 5 July 2001

URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/05/technology/05MEDI.html

Applicants to medical school could end up learning more about bugs this summer than they ever thought they would. But they aren't getting a crash course in viruses; rather, they are learning about all the ways a computerized system can go wrong.

This year is the first in which preliminary applications to most medical schools in the United States are supposed to be submitted entirely online. After downloading an application for admission in the fall of 2002, applicants submit transcripts, other academic records and personal statements via the Internet to a centralized system that sends them on to the student's chosen schools.

Applicants began submitting the online forms on June 21, and so far, to judge from the uproar, the system is working poorly at best. Those who have tried it say that simple functions like cutting and pasting a personal essay can take three hours at www.aamc.org/students/amcas, the overburdened, temperamental Web site of the American Medical College Application Service.

The application process, which normally begins in May, is already delayed. Some medical schools are even considering asking students to send their applications directly, bypassing the online system until it performs adequately.

"Nobody has yet been able to apply to American medical schools for the class of 2002, and we're six weeks into the process," said Dr. Henry J. Ralston, associate dean of admissions for the medical school at the University of California at San Francisco. "It's unbelievable. This is the next generation of American doctors we're talking about."

The online application system has been under development for over two years at the application service, known as Amcas. A program of the Association of American Medical Colleges, Amcas has served as a paper-based clearinghouse for the first round of applications for three decades. It began allowing submissions by diskette several years ago, but that, too, was supplanted by online processing this year.

The site was supposed to be operating by June 1, when students usually begin submitting applications. (Last year about 37,000 people applied.) But software problems and inadequate servers delayed the target start-up date until June 18. Further problems, including a mid-June power failure at the system's headquarters in Washington, delayed the opening until June 21.

Even then, the site suffered from long waiting times, crashes and software glitches. In the first few days, for example, a credit card payment snafu made it impossible for students to pay their processing fees. And Amcas was still having problems as it tested its transmissions. None of the applications have been sent on to medical schools.

"We've had a pretty rough couple of weeks," said Robert L. Beran, vice president for student affairs and education services at the Association of American Medical Colleges. "It's a huge project in terms of testing and bringing the system up, and we are behind."

Amcas has received only about half the number of applications it normally does on paper or by disk by this time of year.

Richard Silverman, director of admissions for the Yale University School of Medicine, said: "The system is not quite ready for prime time, on time. The servers aren't good enough; they are upgrading the software and hardware, and it's a very sensitive subject."

Yale's medical school plans to post a notice on its Web site by the end of this week instructing students to send their paper applications and unofficial transcripts directly to Yale until Amcas repairs the site. Edward J. Miller, director of the health professions advisory program at Yale, described the situation as "an unmitigated disaster."

"How are my students feeling?," he said. "Frustrated, angry that's putting it mildly."

Even with Yale's high-speed cable Internet access, Mr. Miller said, it can take 8 to 10 minutes for a single screen of the application to download, and students are regularly kicked off the overloaded server.

Brian McMichael of Westminster, Calif., estimated that he had spent 80 hours trying to fill in the online application in the first 10 days that it was available and had managed to complete about half of it using his dial-up modem.

"What tends to happen is I will be in the midst of a process and it will stop taking information," he said. "I'll press Next and it will tell me, `Connection Timed Out,' or give me a `Refused' message. Then I just sit there hitting Return. I feel kind of like a rat pressing the bar to get a little piece of rat food."

Mr. Beran of Amcas said that the service was sending mass e-mail messages to update students on software problems. With an ongoing server reconfiguration, Amcas hopes that access will improve soon.

What will happen if it turns out that the online system just doesn't work? "We're hoping Amcas is thinking of something," said Kathie Plessas, director of medical school admissions at the University of California at San Francisco.

Having dismantled its old processing system, Amcas will have no backup ready if the system fails, Mr. Beran said.

His prognostication is that, at best, applications will arrive at medical schools a few weeks later than normal. At worst, Amcas will shift the process to paper, even without a system in place for handling all the applications.

"If we are flat on our face at the end of July, we will go to paper," Mr. Beran said. "But good Lord, I don't want to go there."

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This is the key sentence: << Having dismantled its old processing system, Amcas will have no backup ready if the system fails >>

Stupid! Nothing has been learned. Wanna bet the front-line techies warned their bosses to maintain the old method but were over-ruled?



-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), July 05, 2001

Answers

Re: Yale's medical school plans to post a notice on its Web site by the end of this week instructing students to send their paper applications and unofficial transcripts directly to Yale until Amcas repairs the site. Edward J. Miller, director of the health professions advisory program at Yale, described the situation as "an unmitigated disaster."

"How are my students feeling?," he said. "Frustrated, angry that's putting it mildly."

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I suppose this could be considered part of the students' education. It will prepare them for dealing with insurance company glitches later on.

-- Margaret J (mjans01@yahoo.com), July 05, 2001.


The online application system has been under development for over two years at the application service, known as Amcas.

And I'm sure it was touted to be Y2K compliant.

-- spider (spider0@usa.net), July 06, 2001.


Re: spider's comment:

A colleague of mine, another physician who "gets it" as we used to say, offered me this follow-up thought:

"It is standard to have back-up systems of some kind for any operation, and usually the private sector recognizes this because they know if they fail, they are liable to go under. While our politicians ignored, trivialized, and downplayed Y2K issues, private industry to some degree tried to be prepared. So we don't know how much Amcas was plagued with Y2K problems and fixes, but we do see again what happens when one does not have functioning back-up systems in place for essential operations. And this comes at a time when attracting good medical students is more and more difficult as the medical profession is beat up by the managed care fiasco. The article said that last year some 37,000 people applied--wouldn't it be interesting to see the trends in the yearly applicant pool."

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), July 06, 2001.


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