H. Stephen (Steve) Lieber has served as president and CEO of the Chicago-based Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) since April 2000. On Dec. 19, HIMSS announced that Lieber is planning to retire during 2017, and that a search for his replacement will begin immediately.
According to the news announcement that HIMSS released on Monday afternoon on its website, “Lieber, 63, assumed this role in April 2000 and has led HIMSS through a period of significant change in healthcare and information technology. During his tenure, HIMSS has become an influential association voice, thought leader, resource and advisor driving global transformation of health and healthcare through the best use of IT. Lieber has been a significant figure within HIMSS, the American healthcare community and globally as governments, care delivery organizations, clinicians and others have embraced health IT as a primary asset in addressing problems associated with the cost, quality and access of health and care. Under his leadership,” the announcement stated, “HIMSS has built a global operation annually reaching hundreds of thousands of engaged healthcare professionals in more than 35 countries through its educational programs, public policy leadership, strategic advisory and assessment services, membership and community networks, and other services.”
On Tuesday, the day after the HIMSS announcement, Lieber spoke with Healthcare Informatics Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland about his impending retirement, the evolution of HIMSS as an organization, and the current moment in healthcare and healthcare IT. Below are excerpts from that interview.
You’ve been at the helm of HIMSS for sixteen-and-half years now. How might you summarize the arc of those years, both in terms of your tenure, and in terms of how HIMSS has evolved forward as an organization?
What has happened is that HIMSS has evolved from a membership organization that ran a trade show, into something very different. And in all honesty, I’m trying to be very kind to the people before me, and all—but HIMSS was not an influential voice, was not at the table in Washington, talking about changes in legislation or regulation, when I came on board. And over the last 16-plus years, we certainly have changed that dynamic. And we’ve become recognized as the largest voice of multiple stakeholders—we’re not just the voice of vendors, of clinicians, of providers, of IT folks—and of government as well. So as a result, we’ve achieved a level of credibility and independence of voice that really has made a significant difference in healthcare and in the use of technology in healthcare. That’s how I’d summarize what we’ve done. We can look at what we’ve done and really see a valued contribution to the worlds of healthcare delivery and healthcare policy.
H. Stephen Lieber
Do you have any regrets about anything that has happened? And in any case, what do you view as your most important achievements during your tenure?
No, I have no regrets at all. Honestly, when this job opened up in the fall of 1999, I was running a division of the American Hospital Association, and I knew that this was a job I wanted; and I knew it was a job that had very significant potential and opportunity in healthcare. I’m incredibly fortunate to have been put in this position, so I have absolutely no regrets. I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to have an unbroken string of extremely supportive volunteer leaders. We have our disagreements like everyone else, but at the end of the day, we always find a good path forward together.
Meanwhile, in terms of achievements, I look at HIMSS Analytics and their having created a global standard for IT evolution that is accepted [with regard to the HIMSS Analytics EMRAM schematic for electronic health record and clinical IT adoption]. It’s the ability to bring everybody to a common place in looking at a problem and searching for common solutions; you can see how you are compared to everyone else. So that’s one example. And beyond that, it’s been our ability to work in so many countries. We now operate in, on average, 35 to 38 countries, every year. And we’re bringing a considerable difference in helping people understand the barriers and how to overcome them. And, as an example, using the EMRAM as a tool; and the biggest accomplishment is in what we’ve been able to do in helping clinicians, providers, IT, and government, in various places. I really feel we’ve accomplished a lot.
How many people were on staff when you started back in the spring of 2000?
There were 32 employees when I started, and today we have 400. And those people were sitting on one floor in a building on East Ohio, and today, those people are scattered across the globe. Our operating budget that first year was about $11 million; and this year, it will be about $90-92 million.
You’re deriving tens of millions from the HIMSS Annual Conference, correct?
That leads to a question I was going to ask about the one negative critique I hear consistently about HIMSS as an organization. And that is that some people believe that HIMSS as an organization is too much about the numbers, about the revenues.
We always try to balance everything out. So for example, HIMSS Media is designed to drive revenues. That business unit is really focused on business numbers, in terms of what they’re able to drive. Meanwhile, HIMSS North America is strongly separated into two pieces. And when it comes to the piece of HIMSS North America that is focused on professional development, and the folks there have no requirement to focus on the financial numbers at all. Yes, they do have a budget every year, and they have to bring their costs in, so they are paying to numbers in that sense, but they’re not driving revenue at all. So the professional development is strictly member- and subject matter-focused.
And then there’s the annual conference. The annual conference has two purposes. One is to educate, and that side is focused on just breaking even. The educational program charges a fraction of what a for-profit company would charge. We don’t design that to make money; if we break even, I’m happy. But yes, we are focused on driving net income. That’s where I feel that our critics aren’t recognizing what the purpose is of why we do some of the things we do that drive profit. I’m not doing things in Turkey, Latvia, other parts of the world, if I don’t create profits that I generate in other places. So the work we do in many places is designed solely to break even, because the work in those places we do requires a much bigger investment. So I make no apologies for making money in some places, so that we can spend those profits and truly bring about a better way of life in those other places.
What will happen to the organization in the next couple of years ahead?
Every year, we develop a set of strategic statements that really drive us in terms of our internal thinking and planning. And I’m glad to share one of them with you, because it very much is a telling statement about the organization of the future; it’s to expand the impact on policies, content and communities around the world. So it’s an expression of our intent that we started just about 10 years ago when we went to Geneva with the first conference that HIMSS produced outside the United States. It’s recognizing the reputation, the brand, our convening ability, and the thought leadership and voice that HIMSS can bring to all parts of the world in helping everyone move positively down this journey. That’s what I see for the future—an absolute commitment to that by this organization. That’s not a “Steve agenda”; it’s ingrained in the culture of the organization. So I think what you’ll see of HIMSS in the future is that, if I do my job right in the next 12 months, the strategic thinking and the resources for those who follow to continue to build on that.
And what do you see happening in healthcare more generally, in the next few years?
Healthcare is getting smarter, and it will do so using technological tools. We’re going to understand disease better, genetic makeup better, what works and what doesn’t work. So the key comment, the key prediction, is that healthcare will get smarter by using technological tools. And that’s exactly the thinking I had 16-plus years ago; I wasn’t able to articulate it quite the way I can now. But it really was the view I had when I applied for and received this ob. I knew what the opportunity was for what information systems could bring to healthcare. And looking forward, what healthcare will come to realize that most other industries already have, is the value of smartness. I think it’s going to become even more of a technology-driven and information-driven sector, and therefore, very much where HIMSS is positioned, and in terms of what we’re continuing to try to do to anticipate how those tools will be used. And that influences how we develop our next round of tools.
People really are using healthcare IT to create transformational change in healthcare. The pioneers are doing it, as I just blogged today. Meanwhile, there are an awful lot of “Debbie Downers” out there these days; but the pioneers are proving them wrong.
My view is that the pioneer or innovator will never be a “downer.” These are the people that at times you have to watch out that they’re not overly optimistic or over-promising or leading you off the cliff. But there is far more upside potential from an innovator, from a pioneer. I certainly am an admirer and an advocate for pioneers, and I like to provide the platform for them to talk about and show what they are doing, because I really do believe that they provide probably the best avenue to the future. If you only follow the doubters or the negative voices, it will lead you back and not forward.
Do you have any other thoughts that you’d like to add?
As I joked with my staff yesterday as I was making the announcement, I’ve got two years’ worth of agenda that I’ve got to cram into one year, so I’m very engaged. I’m very excited about the year ahead. But yes, I will feel a great loss when I walk through the door the next time. There will be a next chapter and a future Steve; I’m not sure what it is yet. I’m not going to do it full-time or the exact same thing I’ve done for 17 years. But I’m very excited about what we’ve done, and am excited about what’s next. And I honestly don’t know what will happen; that’s kind of liberating, actually!
I honestly don’t picture you sitting in front of the fireplace knitting, in your retirement.
No! I have to be engaged. I’ll be contemplating what the best things I can do.