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What to Expect at HIMSS13: An Interview with Steve Lieber

February 17, 2013
by Mark Hagland
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HIMSS’ president and CEO shares his thoughts on the association’s present and future plans

HIMSS13, the annual conference of the Chicago-based Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), will be held March 3-7 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. Over a period of many years, the conference has grown tremendously in terms of the number of educational sessions, as well as the healthcare IT professional attendance and vendor participation. HIMSS12 in Las Vegas welcomed over 37,000 attendees, a new record. This year’s HIMSS Conference will bring attendees more sessions and educational and networking options than ever, at a time when healthcare leaders are faced with more policy and regulatory mandates, and more operational imperatives, than ever.

H. Stephen Lieber has been president and CEO of HIMSS since 2000. In the 13 years since he joined the organization, he has grown the HIMSS staff to a size ten times larger than it was when he joined the organization. Not only does HIMSS produce its annual conference in the United States; it runs a number of international programs every year as well. In fact, in late January when Steve Lieber sat down to talk with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland, he had just returned from a multi-continent business trip on behalf of the association. Below are excerpts from that interview.

How was 2012 for the HIMSS organization?

It was a really good year, and not too surprising of a year. I think we all kind of knew what to expect last year. There were no real surprises for us as an organization. The uncertainty was the election; but it was a fairly expected sort of series of events in 2012.


H. Stephen Lieber

Is HIMSS continuing to grow, staff-wise?

We have over 300 staff now; that’s a ten-fold increase since I started in 2000. We’re focusing a lot of energy around different themes in the United States, and looking to expand our activities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia now. I’m actually spending much more time on the global enterprise. The organization’s changed a lot.

And you’re getting to travel a great deal internationally. How glamorous of you!

It’s anything but glamorous! I got in from London at the end of a ten-day trip last night, and didn’t look very glamorous. [laughs]

Will anything be different at the HIMSS Conference in 2013 from 2012?

I thought about it this morning, anticipating your question. And I think the first message is, one, let’s recognize that the healthcare system and the technology around it don’t change that dramatically in one single year. The issues tend to be multiple-year issues. So, obviously, we’ve been focusing on meaningful use for years now, and will continue to do so for a while. And if you dig into the programming, you start to find other themes that really are secondary headlines. But there are some other things that are not necessarily new, though the emphasis that we put on them varies from year to year. So, for example, the broad topic of mobile health, which encompasses consumer engagement through mobile devices, mobile applications, all of those sorts of technologies, that entire area is trending up. It’s grown dramatically in the past five years; and you’ll see that reflected in our programming this year.

And actually, it’s not yet quite integrated into the delivery world, to where mobile and stationary technology are totally integrated; so that conference audience might not necessarily always attend a HIMSS conference. So that area will continue to grow at the HIMSS Conference as well.

Another area is the area of business intelligence and analytics; that’s grown considerably over the past few years. And the interest in that area is worldwide. So you’ll see sessions focused on the concept of big data. But I see that across the world, because the issues of efficiency and quality are universal, whether you have an insurance-based system as we do, or a budget-based system as in Europe. Everybody’s focused on cost and quality, so that’s certainly a strong focus.

And the changes already made in the reimbursement system, including around accountable care, as well as the anticipation that we all have that the reimbursement systems will change even further, since we have to do something about the cost of care, those will naturally be a focus. Accordingly, one of the things we’re very focused on is how technology can support a continuity of care-type of change. So you’ll find that to be a significant change.

And a message I’d like to bring out is the importance of making sure that other strategic leaders, beyond the IT professionals, know what’s going on. So you’ll see more of a focus on those people as well. And if you’re going to transform healthcare, you have to get beyond your traditional core audience, so you’ll see sessions focused on non-IT executives. The mixture of keynotes is fairly typical for us—policy, operations, innovation—around areas we’ve long believed were cornerstones of healthcare operations.

Can you say how much the conference has grown, revenues-wise, over the past year or two?

If you look at the organization as a whole, over the past three years—and our fiscal year begins in July 1—so, looking at this year’s year-end forecast, versus where we were three years earlier—overall, the organization has grown by 60 percent on a revenue basis. We’ve made some fairly big acquisitions, including acquiring virtually total ownership of MedTech Media, and we’ve expanded that business—our media business unit now represents about 22-23-percent of the total organization.

We’ve also expanded HIMSS Analytics with the acquisition of CapSite, another data and analytics firm, last fall. The annual conference itself has grown 17 percent over the past three years. So the conference has grown, but not as much as the rest of the organization has. It’s a strong, growing event; life is good. We seem to be delivering what our audience wants. The organization’s budget this year is $80 million, and $28-29 million comes from the annual conference. So the Conference represents 35 percent of the enterprise-wide revenues come from the conference.

There are those who are saying that the HIMSS Conference has fallen too far onto the side of the interests of vendors. Do you have any response to that?

It’s a legitimate question; the trade show has grown so large, that the assumption is that that represents what we do. But we rent the exhibition space to vendors, and then they execute their activities. So it’s a very small percentage of the time we spend on the Conference. And there are absolutely no vendors on the planning committee, none. And we have a near-exclusion on vendors presenting by themselves. So I understand the perceptions, per the size of the exhibit hall. But there are 22 educational sessions going on at any time, in any hour. The presumption is that those big booths must give them a big advantage over planning; but actually, it doesn’t. As you know, we let Cerner walk away, we let Meditech walk away, from exhibiting. And I think some people didn’t give us credit for that kind of thing.

The thing is, we’ve got an obligation to be as independent as we possibly can. Now, when you’ve got companies that are very prevalent in the industry, they’re going to be present. Now, when you look at the programming and you say, look how many times customers of Epic or McKesson are presenting, some might think there’s vendor influence there, but there’s none. We have a volunteer committee that reviews the proposals that are submitted, and they make the call. So I think it’s a perception thing.

Will we be seeing any changes in next year’s conference, in 2014?

Well, actually, we don’t do a whole lot of planning for the next year’s conference while preparing the current one; we still have a limited staff. At this point in time, we’re just focused on the logistics of Orlando for next year. The call for proposals launches after New Orleans.

Next year’s conference will be in Orlando, and then 2015 will be in Chicago?

Yes, that’s correct, and then in 2016, we will be in Las Vegas. Right now, in terms of what we have in terms of letters of intent, are those three cities. We have dates on hold going out 10 to 12 years.

A year ago, you said that New Orleans, Orlando, Las Vegas, and Chicago were your constellation of sites; has there been any change in that?

For right now, yes. But New Orleans took out an exhibition hall and turned it into a ballroom, so we’ll have to see about that. Boston has emerged as a potential site. And Atlanta has returned as a potential site; they’re really in competition with Orlando, though. But technically, Atlanta fits.

Boston would have to be slightly later, as Chicago will be?

Yes, that’s right. And we’re having a conversation with them. And, as with Chicago, it would present an opportunity to get more regional attendees. Regional attendees run from 30 to 40 percent. When we went to Chicago for the first time, we had 40 percent of attendees who were there for the first time. So that’s the advantage of rotation; you’re able to reach audiences that you otherwise wouldn’t.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

The main message is what I’ve described above. And five weeks out, everything looks great, and we’re looking forward to getting down to New Orleans.


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