3 takeaways from HIMSSanity in Las Vegas

Another annual ritual of networking, hyperbole and celebration comes to a close for the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). The bottom line is that health care IT remains an exciting place to be.

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43,546 attendees. 7.2 TB of data downloaded at the conference, the equivalent of 1.8 million MP3s and 1,800 full-length movies. Yep, sounds like another Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society annual conference.

Despite some fifteen consecutive years of attending the conference, the sensory overload of a HIMSS annual event never ceases to overwhelm, even with careful scheduling. This year, I had the privilege of serving on one of the conference committees and had a view of the rigor that goes into the planning of the conference. The result is a curation of some of the most insightful presentations on healthcare IT covering a wide range of topics, with the focus on emerging trends.

Here are my three takeaways from this year’s HIMSS conference.

It’s all about digital. But it’s not just about bits and bytes

Every year, a single theme dominates the HIMSS annual conference. In recent years, these included big data, interoperability and artificial intelligence (AI). This year, the prize goes to "digital." Everyone with a software-enabled solution is now a digital transformation company. Despite the hyperbole, there is ample evidence of progress in the digital transformation of healthcare, but it’s not all about technology. I had the opportunity to moderate a session with CIO David Chou of Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City outlining their digital roadmap where he emphasized the need to align with organizational priorities and gaining buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders as critical success factors.

In another session, Chief Innovation Officer Rasu Shreshta of UPMC declared that complexity is the bane of healthcare, and design thinking is the solution. Healthcare consumerism is here, and it's crucial to design digital experiences by and for the newly empowered healthcare consumers. In this regard, healthcare is well behind other sectors such as retail and e-commerce. 

Big data analytics and artificial intelligence are disappearing

Literally, but not quite literally, advanced analytics is fading into the background as a corollary to the increased emphasis on digitalizing experiences. Digital transformation is about a whole new way of engaging patients, delivering care and improving operational efficiencies. While the front end is about seamless and engaging digital interfaces, what powers it behind the scenes is data and analytics, enabled by cloud infrastructures. As Neal Singh, CEO of population health management company Caradigm put it to me, AI is no longer an end in itself. It’s something that simply permeates through all kinds of health care IT solutions today. In that sense, AI is "invisible" to users.

However, the notion of seamless digital experiences powered by AI and cloud is at best a work-in-progress, largely due to the unfinished business of data interoperability. Even though Fast Health Interoperability Resources (FHIR) is emerging as a de facto standard for interoperability, it works well in small and medium volumes and is yet to demonstrate its viability as a technology solution for high volumes of data exchange. As Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google parent Alphabet, put it in his keynote address, we're still missing that "killer app" that will solve the interoperability challenge. Regardless, data-driven healthcare is the way of the future; analytics solution provider Inovalon announced at HIMSS that it is dropping $1.2 billion in cash and stock to buy cloud-based analytics provider Ability Network.

The vendor battle for attention reaches new highs (or lows)

Let’s not forget the hundreds of vendors who pay for floor space and add to the conference’s appeal through educational sessions, networking opportunities, and yes, some much-needed entertainment and refreshment. I never cease to be amazed by the creativity of technology firms in attracting attention to themselves on the exhibition floor. It’s no longer just the juggler performing tricks; nor the young lady who accosts you wielding the barcode reader like a lethal weapon and intent on scanning your badge; nor even the free coffee (my favorite) for that late afternoon bump of energy. This year, one tech firm offered a chance to win a $250 gift card just to retweet one of their tweets, and another went the opposite direction with a social message, inviting attendees to drop off  all unused hotel shampoo and soap bars at their booth to be donated to a homeless shelter. I can’t wait to see what will happen next year. Here’s an idea: a free genome sequencing test for anyone willing to donate their genomic data to scientific research.

The one thing I didn’t “feel” much of during the conference was blockchain. The transformative potential of the technology has become amply evident in recent months. However, it appears that it is yet to gain traction in healthcare. Who knows, that may well be the mantra for HIMSS19 in Orlando. 

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