Another HIMSS conference has come and gone, and although Las Vegas doesn't seem like the optimal place for a health IT conference on paper—good God, I saw some strange stuff—there was as much buzz and craze as ever. (To this end, be sure to check out all of HCI's awesome wall-to-wall HIMSS coverage all in one spot right here). With that being said, here are my five biggest takeaways from this year's show before I go into health IT hibernation for a few days.
1) The "Pledge"—It sounds like a movie, but it's as real as ever. On HIMSS' opening evening, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell delivered big news to thousands of audience members, announcing a major federal initiative that has gathered together industry leaders to advance data-sharing, consumer access to healthcare data, and interoperability. The organizations that have signed onto these commitments, per HHS, include the companies that provide 90 percent of electronic health records (EHRs) to U.S. hospitals and the five largest private health systems in the country. This is a big deal on paper with a lot of huge names involved. It's the government's way of essentially saying to stakeholders, "Figure out how to work together to improve the flow of patient data from organization to organization, or you will be held accountable."
But, that leads us to the second part of this process—is there enough accountability tied to the pledge? Does it have enough teeth? I asked several big names in health IT throughout the week, and there were varying answers. Here are a few:
Marc Probst, vice president and CIO of Intermountain Healthcare, one of the provider organizations that signed the pledge, said the pledge isn't enough on its own, and many of the folks who signed it were already committed to these actions, making it more of a formality.
Former Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) policy director, Jodi Daniel, said, "It's just a promise. There isn't necessarily a hook other than public awareness and transparency about who has done what," adding that the pledge is both positive and limited.
Rasu Shrestha, M.D., chief innovation officer at UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center), said the key going forward is for vendors to be incentivized for opening their systems. He said it starts with provider customers and patients asking for access to data. "When there is enough of a demand, vendors will have to comply," Shrestha said. Providers choosing vendors that embrace open APIs (application program interfaces) and HL7's FHIR (Health Level Seven's Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) standard will move the needle, he said.
2) FHIR Cloud—There was much buzz circulating throughout the HIMSS show floor this week about the "FHIR Cloud," turning the phrase into a trending Twitter topic. I'm not positive anyone can even describe the FHIR Cloud, but at the very least, some cool images come to mind. Early in the week, ONC did launch an innovation strategy that includes two software app challenges with award prizes totaling $175,000 each: one focused on consumer use and one focused on provider use. Additionally, a competitive funding opportunity of up to $275,000 will support the development of an open resource to make it easier for developers to publish their apps and for providers to discover and compare them. The strategy will leverage the FHIR standard and the use of open standardized APIs. Indeed, FHIR was a hot (no pun intended) point of conversation at HIMSS16. But even as FHIR's expert architects admit, there are still plenty of challenges with it, and the standard alone will not solve healthcare's interoperability problems.