Blood, sweat and tears: The HIMSS juggernaut of 2015

The battle for the minds of the IT buyer, the healthcare consumer, and the policymakers rages for weeks before, during, and after the healthcare IT's biggest annual event. This year's HIMSS conference featured two prominent, headline-grabbing battle cries.

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HIMSS15, healthcare information technology’s biggest annual event, rolled through my hometown of Chicago this week like a juggernaut. It’s de rigueur to attend if you’re in healthcare IT, and downright mandatory if the event is happening in your home town. So attend I did.

(The word Juggernaut is an anglicized form of the name of a Hindu God who crushes everyone in his path. HIMSS is not that dramatic, but a juggernaut nonetheless in the world of healthcare IT.)

First, the sweat:

The numbers seem to swell every year. At over 40,000 attendees (11.5 percent higher than in 2014), and over 1,300 exhibitors spread over 600,000 net square feet of floor space, this was the biggest ever HIMSS conference, proving that a) the role of information technology in healthcare is getting bigger every year and b) the number of cities that can actually host a conference of this magnitude is getting smaller year after year.

As is wont to happen when annual events of this scale are scheduled to take place, there is a media frenzy that kicks in, with all kinds of announcements about new product launches, mergers and acquisitions, industry survey findings, and the like. The event is a watering hole for industry executives, vendors and their clients. Months before the event, the lobbying for prime spots on the exhibition floor comes to a head. Weeks before the actual event, the obligatory “are you attending HIMSS this year?” emails start flying back and forth, email signatures proudly feature exhibitor status, and the Twitterverse is set ablaze with #HIMSS. Those who leave their travel planning to the last minute find that there are no hotel rooms available – none within a 10-mile radius anyway.

The bloody battles of 2015:

The battle for the minds of the IT buyer, the healthcare consumer, and the policymakers rages for weeks before, during, and after the event. It’s almost as if the event is a lightning rod for battle cries. This year featured two prominent, headline-grabbing battle cries.

Battle cry No. 1: Data wants to be free

 The Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information technology (ONC) slammed healthcare IT vendors for not sharing patient medical data. This is part of a longstanding complaint about the lack of interoperability among healthcare vendors and growing skepticism about electronic health records (EHR) in the medical community. These flames were fanned even further by the release of the findings of a survey by consulting firm Accenture that found that most U.S. doctors are more proficient using electronic medical records (EMR) than they were two years ago, but fewer believe that EMR has improved treatment decisions, reduced medical errors or improved health outcomes.

Vendors, for their part, are trying to demonstrate their good intent through the The Commonwell Health Alliance, a 2-year-old consortium to develop a proprietary interoperability platform that was launched by five leading  vendors at the 2013 HIMSS show and  whose mission statement is to enable scalable, secure and reliable interoperability while recognizing the need to protect sensitive healthcare data.

The outrage about certain vendors actively blocking the exchange of data on the one hand, and the exorbitant fees being  charged for data transfers on the other, led to announcements by leading vendors at this year’s conference that they would be temporarily eliminate or drop fees to provide relief.

Despite these announcements, people I talked to at the conference were skeptical about the actual progress made on “true” interoperability.

Battle cry No. 2: IBM is the new goliath in town

Analytics took center stage at the conference as IBM declared its intentions to be a big player in analytics with the announcement this week of its acquisition of Explorys (a spinoff from Cleveland Clinic) and Phytel, two leading analytics solution providers. Separately, it also announced it is expanding its partnership with Apple for healthcare research by focusing on the data entered into mobile devices by Apple customers. Partnerships with Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic were also announced, the most recent in a long line of recent partnerships and alliances. All of this will be housed in a new division Watson Health, that will greatly extend the Watson Cognitive Computing platform.

The unified story of cloud, software and cognitive computing capabilities looks unassailable on paper, however  the question is how IBM is going to execute on integrating all these moving parts into a cohesive unit. Further, the healthcare market is dominated by EMR firms like Epic and Cerner who control the most important element in this mix – patient data – that sits within their proprietary systems.

Interestingly, GE Healthcare, another giant that is committed to the healthcare sector, announced at the conference that they were exiting the hospital EMR business, after several years of struggle with their flagship Centricity Enterprise product.

So, while one big company declared war in one part of the healthcare IT market, another one surrendered in another part of the same market.

The most interesting battle reported during the event was between Judy Faulkner of Epic  and Jonathan Bush of Athena Health, two fierce competitors in the EMR market. Their battle took the shape of a mock confrontation on stage, where a pie was thrown at Bush’s face in an act of friendly aggression. I was reminded of how the CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher, resolved an issue with an industry competitor by an arm-wrestling match (see: Malice in Dallas) in the early nineties.

And finally, the Tears:

The first commandment of HIMSS for a first time attendee is this: wear comfortable shoes. I forgot that advice, despite being a multiple-times attendee, and paid the price at the end of the day, with my feet begging for mercy and rest.

However, it turned out that was hardly a high price compared to the $5.50 cappuccino I waited 45 minutes in line for at the sole Starbucks on the exhibition floor. I’ll never get those minutes back.

Having attended HIMSS in Europe in the past, I was hoping to hear some sessions focused on how healthcare works in other countries and the lessons we can learn from their experiences, and was also hoping for more coverage on the role of nimble digital and consumer health startups that are disrupting healthcare today. Perhaps next year.

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