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The Future of HIMSS

March 17, 2008
by Mark Hagland
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Subtle changes in the most recent HIMSS conference can give the experienced observer insight into the supershow’s future.

To the untrained eye, HIMSS08 may have seemed like a typical HIMSS show, if not a bit bigger. But below the surface, it was clear an evolution is taking place.

This year, long-time attendees and industry observers noted they were encountering perhaps at least a few fewer CIOs and more executives and managers below the CIO level. Some attributed it to the fact that more hospital-based organizations have now at least completed the initial phase of their core EMR implementations, and thus are in what one industry expert called the “what’s next?” phase of clinical IS development. In other words, CIOs as a group are preoccupied with the operational aspects of implementing core clinical systems, rather than the strategic issues of whether, any longer, to consider doing so.

The question for HIMSS then becomes, will the annual conference continue to serve a high-level strategic purpose? If not, it could devolve into a department-level kind of event, and that would be most unfortunate, because the annual HIMSS Conference remains unique in healthcare IT — and, really, in the entire healthcare industry — in its consistent ability to gather together thought leaders from across the industry to a single event.

In that regard, there are both some very positive, and some concerning, signs coming out of this year’s HIMSS Conference. On the concerning side is the reported downturn in CIO attendance, bolstered by anecdotal reports this writer has heard of numerous prominent CIOs who decided to take a flyer on flying down to the Sunshine State.

On the positive side, attendance by clinician leaders at the pre-conference symposia for physicians, nurses, pharmacists and others was clearly higher than ever. And the number of clinicians attending HIMSS also signals a deeper penetration into the clinical leadership ranks of hospital-based organizations of awareness that they need to move forward on core-clinical implementation and expansion.

It is also true that, despite the hype that permeates the exhibit hall every year, there are invariably real breakthroughs to discover on the floor — some of them coming from quite-small companies. As I wrote in my blog from the conference on Wednesday, Feb. 27, one demo I found immensely compelling was by Hod HaSharon, Israel-based dbMotion, which has co-developed a software program with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center that seems to show the way to a level of semantic interoperability offering great promise for clinical care quality and safety improvement.

It is precisely that type of opportunity to discover breakthroughs which keeps attendees coming back to the conference year after year. After 17 HIMSS conferences, I can honestly say that I’ve made exciting discoveries on the exhibit floor every year. (And in fairness to other vendors, there were numerous breakthrough demos being offered on the exhibit floor that I was not personally able to see exhibited. That, too, is one of the built-in elements of the HIMSS Conference one simply has to accept — the fact of time limits with regard to what any one person can see and learn about.)

It is probably inevitable that the title-based demographics of HIMSS Conference attendance will continue to shift over time. What is important, however, is the sense of vision and direction that will be needed by HIMSS leadership going forward. I have seen other important annual industry conferences become hollowed-out shells over time. May that never happen to the HIMSS Conference, which remains, when all is said and done, unique and uniquely important to the industry.