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Is Our Industry at an Inflection Point?

February 17, 2011
by Mark Hagland
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Parsing the Zeitgeist at HIMSS11

Having been in the industry for decades now (boy, does that sound old!), I’ve had the opportunity, like other “veterans,” of being able to follow the curve of the HIMSS Conference evolution over a long period of time, to ponder the Zeitgeist or l’air du temps, as German-speakers and French-speakers say, respectively, to feel the winds of the industry blow this way and that over time.

I remember the early ’90s, when going on the exhibit floor at the HIMSS Conference meant subjecting oneself to a blizzard of vaporware discussions, in which it was honestly difficult at times to even figure out what a vendor company really did, to pierce through the marketing hype at a time when the information technology being pushed was quite primitive compared to now, and there were more marketing claims than real successes in advancing our industry. Along with other grizzled vets, I’ve observed the rise and fall of countless vendors and even vendor types, and wave after wave of changing buzzwords and buzz-terms and buzz-concepts.

And I remember several years ago, when some in the industry predicted that the HIMSS Conference would wither away into irrelevance, as the landscape appeared fragmented, and smaller, more specialized conferences seemed to be gaining ground daily.

Yet in a way, the opposite has happened, partly because of huge trends and developments at the meta level of policy and society. With the purchasers and payers of healthcare no longer content simply to continue to pay mounting bills without seeing value for funds expended, and with the need to automate patient care more evident than ever, the passage of federal healthcare reform in 2010 and of a federal stimulus package that included tens of billions for electronic patient records and other automation elements, in 2009, became realities, and rocked our world.

Of course, there are debates and controversies aplenty around these two transformative pieces of federal legislation, as around everything else in healthcare. But at least there is now greater clarity-of-landscape, shall we say, than there has been at any time in the more than two decades I’ve been in healthcare publishing.

And that of course is reflected in the muscularity and richness of programming at this year’s HIMSS Conference. Take the preconference symposia, for example, where the roster includes a larger number of sessions than ever before (by far), encompassing whole symposia on data usability, secondary data use, HIEs, ICD-10 & 5010, and meaningful use, in addition to the longstanding ones dedicated to physicians, nurses, and clinical engineering professionals (though, what happened to the pharmacists…??). In addition, the folks at HIMSS are providing new venues for learning and networking, including what is being called “HIT X.0: Beyond the Edge,” and “Leading from the Future: A HIMSS Thought Leadership Event on Accountable Care Organizations.” There certainly is no lack of sessions to attend.

At the same time, with CIOs, CMIOs, and other healthcare IT leaders now almost universally crazed (my favorite word, I admit it!) with activity trying to meet the requirements set forth under the HITECH Act, I know of numerous senior executives who won’t be at the conference at all. One of my favorite CMIOs e-mailed me this week saying, “I am busy becoming meaningful and do not have time to go to the conference.” (And I was not surprised.) And those who do attend HIMSS will be expecting more useful, pointed, and specific (yet also strategic) information and insights than ever before.

It will be fascinating for me to attend what will be my 20th HIMSS Conference this year. While many in our audience have decades more “HIMSS anniversaries” they can count, I will venture to say that for all of us who have been around for a while, in any case, feeling out the Zeitgeist of this year’s HIMSS—at a time of great industry change and tumult—will be more fascinating than ever. Here at Healthcare Informatics, we’ve got a team of editors ready to bring you, our readers, as much of the richness and drama of the conference, as we can—and hopefully, far more light than heat, at a time when everyone’s looking for the strategic insights and practical tactics needed to survive—and thrive—this highly charged passage in healthcare and healthcare IT history.