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HIMSS13: Health IT Leaders Seek Interoperability Solutions


The main themes of this year's conference were the ongoing quest toward interoperability among EHRs and other systems, plus HIPAA security and mobility.

Health Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) is an association of the top healthcare IT leaders for both technology vendors and user organizations.  On the vendor side, it represents single-person startups to industry giants like Cisco, Microsoft, and Cerner.  Users are represented by IT professionals such as hospital IT executives and managers, as well as clinician user roles such as Chief Medical Information Officers (CMIO) and nursing informaticists, along with payers and clearinghouses.

The most recent conference, held March 3rd through March 7th in New Orleans, was huge; with over 35,000 attendees and 1,100 exhibitors showcasing their solutions in an exhibit hall that represents over one million square feet and spans nearly a mile.  There were over 200 educational sessions plus numerous workshops provided by technology solution providers.  Keynote speakers included noted physician Eric Topol, former President Bill Clinton, and political polar opposites Carl Rove and James Carville.

The HIMSS13 theme was, "Health IT; Right Place, Right Time – It’s on!"   However, the informal theme can be summarized in one word: Interoperability.  The atmosphere seemed more focused on solutions than ever before.

On the technology side, it is obvious that health IT solutions have matured and are more able than ever to support the needs of healthcare "customers" - primarily providers and patients.  Mobile user devices, along with scalable and reliable core solutions like virtualization and storage, have never been more feature-rich or as capable.

For users, one difference seemed to be fewer people with a "deer-in-the-headlights" look, and more people intent on seeking out and learning about specific technology solutions.  Having said that, there was still a tremendous amount of "gadget-it is," both from vendors rolling out brand shiny new toys, and attendees fixated on new (and possibly unproven) technologies. 

One of the biggest stories coming out of HIMSS13 was an announcement on the first day of a new consortium of major software vendors, the CommonWell Health Alliance, intending to develop, test, and deliver a platform that supports an unprecedented level of interoperability to both the ambulatory and acute care marketplace.  The software vendors include 3t Systems’ technology partner Greenway Medical, along with Allscripts, Athenahealth, Cerner, McKesson and RelayHealth.

As the name CommonWell cleverly implies, the focus is on wellness (not wealth).  The announcement set the informal theme for the conference, with nearly every vendor showing some form of interoperability message in their marketing materials and service offerings.

Although interoperability is fast becoming a central theme for health IT, the fact is there are still many "point" solutions, which need to be integrated into seamless work flow to achieve true interoperability where IT fades into the background of the user experience.  As an example, smartphone users rarely have to think about what brand of device they are using and what kind of operating system it has, they just use their phone.  Only when healthcare technology becomes similarly "invisible" will true interoperability be realized. The CommonWell Alliance is an important first step, and that is just the software side.  Similar initiatives need to come together in hardware such as networking, storage, security, imaging and other medical devices.

Other prominent themes for the conference included support for mobile devices and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD); health reform and changing care delivery models and the resulting potential impact on underlying IT systems; and clinical/business intelligence gaining meaningful results out of the increasingly accumulating healthcare data.

HIPAA Security was also a major topic, with the new regulations recently released by CMS and by the many recent HIPAA breaches announced in the press.   HIPAA Security is clearly no longer an issue that is addressed solely by software - indeed it is more important than ever to evaluate HIPAA across the entire organization, including software, networking, infrastructure, and user devices.   This is especially true with the exploding use of wireless user devices like tablets and notebooks.

Judging from the buzz at HIMSS13, healthcare IT solutions have arrived and the demand for interoperability will help break down the technology silos that always occur as industries embrace new trends.  All users - payers, providers, and patients - will benefit from better functionality.  Health IT has always been touted as a key enabler for the triple aim of healthcare, improving the patient experience, improving care and lowering cost.  With the solutions and initiatives showcased at HIMSS13, it now seems possible like never before.

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