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Deconstructing HIMSS

April 1, 2006
by Charlene Marietti
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Healthcare leaders seem to have settled in for the long race toward interoperability and streamlined operations.

Although the HIMSS annual conference and exhibit was very much a continuation of past years’ events, it was also noticeably different. A totally unscientific review of special exhibit hall attractions yielded only one very superficial notation: Espresso machines outnumbered live entertainment. Does this have any significance? Probably not, but the overall mood did seem more serious and focused on achievements.

As in past years, presentations fell into two camps: lessons learned and expertise to share. The difference was in the subject matter. If there was a single, overriding theme, it was anything “patient-focused.” Electronic medical record presentations and demonstrations were pervasive, as was expected, but interest in regional health information organizations — or RHIOs — wasn’t far behind for the second year in a row.

The industry, as a whole, seems to have fallen into line behind the goal of a national health information network (NHIN). By and large, however, providers seem to be leaving the NHIN worries to the feds — probably because they already have plenty to consider in the planning and building of the local and regional feeder systems.

Although there are reported to be more than 150 RHIOs — sometimes called health information exchanges (HIE) — most attendees still seem to be struggling with the nitty-gritty technological issues of how to maintain privacy and ensure security when moving sensitive personal information around, and with the down-and-dirty details of how to financially support a RHIO once it’s up and running.

Complementing the emerging NHIN, the increasingly sophisticated Center for Disease Control and Surveillance’s public health information network (PHIN) initiative, and other public health projects stood out for their presence and progress.

Long the healthcare industry’s stepchild, public health has taken giant steps forward, primarily thanks to efforts surrounding heightened interest in homeland security and biosurveillance activities. Hampered until recently by a woefully inadequate communication, IT infrastructure and low funding, public health departments at local, state and national levels have demonstrated the ability to step into 21st century technology. (In fact, their prior state of starting from near-scratch was a boon in building as there was no need to justify a migration from legacy systems.)

And finally, there seems to be widespread acceptance that standards are not only nice to have, they’re necessary. To get to the national data sharing network as envisioned, standards will have to be part of the planned networks; and they will pay off. For example, Health Level Seven, the standards development organization based in Ann Arbor, Mich., proudly pointed to the $1.5 million in savings achieved using HL7 standards to match immunization records of Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

Another notable trend is the increased number of products aimed at end-users from infrastructure companies. Among those best known for under-the-cover workhorse technology, some are now offering products for end-users. Cisco (San Jose, Calif.), InterSystems (Cambridge, Mass.), Microsoft (Redmond, Wash.), Nortel (Brampton, Ontario), Oracle (Redwood Shores, Calif.) and Sentillion (Andover, Mass.) were noted for breaking out of back-end anonymity to tout their own branded applications and systems.

Overall, I’d like to think this is the beginning of a new era — one in which healthcare IT assumes its rightful position as an enabler and as an essential tool in the march toward improving quality in patient care. Perhaps David Brailer, M.D., Ph.D., best captured the imperative. The National Coordinator for Health Information Technology told his keynote audience, “There is a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way. We’re on a marathon. The sprint has ended.”