HIMSS14: One Attendee's In-depth Look at All Things Health IT

March 6, 2014

Here's some observations from my walkabout with 38,000 of my closest friends in healthcare IT, better known as the HIMSS14 Conference recently held in Orlando.

The recent conference of the Health Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) was held in Orlando from February 23-27. HIMSS is mostly comprised of healthcare IT executives and consultants working in and serving the "large market" segment of healthcare, which includes hospitals and large clinics, integrated delivery networks, independent physician associations, and accountable care organizations. HIMSS has about 55,000 members nationwide and over 40 state/regional chapters.

HIMSS14 by the Numbers

If you have not been to a HIMSS annual conference recently (or never), the numbers are staggering. This year, there were about 38,000 attendees, which was up about 10 percent over last year. There were more than 300 educational sessions, plus another hundred or so breakout sessions, luncheons, and breakfasts hosted by vendor partners as well as state HIMSS chapter organizations and other associated groups like nursing informatics and regulatory bodies.

If past conferences are a guide, the ratio of attendance from exhibitors and consulting companies is interesting - vendor attendees typically outnumber the attendance from provider organizations (i.e. hospitals, etc.) by about 3 to 2. That number is a bit misleading, however, as many of the vendors and consultants who attend are actually doing so on behalf of one or maybe several of their provider organization clients.

There were over 1,200 exhibitors (up about 7 percent over last year). If you spent just five minutes with each one, that would be over 100 hours, not counting walking the exhibit hall floor, which itself is about a mile long. Spending just one additional minute with each vendor would add another 20 hours to your trek. Exhibitors also occupied more space than last year, up by about 20 percent according to reports from HIMSS staff.

Needless to say, the only way to have a good HIMSS annual meeting experience is 1.) Wear comfortable walking shoes; and 2.) Map out your plan ahead of time so you aren’t wandering all over.

The "Best of HIMSS" List (arbitrary categories and selection by this author)

• Best giveaway: Google Glass and GoPro cameras

• Biggest booth: Cerner, at 13,000 square feet. Cost? Priceless?

• Smallest booth: 10x10. (It’s still several thousand dollars, and many of those exhibitors looked like they were NOT getting their money’s worth…)

• Live attractions that had the absolute least connection to healthcare IT, but seemed to garner the most attention: Slight-of-hand magicians, carnival barkers, sand painters, speed artists, game show setups.

• Most handy attendee "creature comfort": The golf cart shuttles that would take you from one end of the exhibit hall to the other in about 10 minutes (on one ride, a guy "riding shotgun" would stop at various exhibitor booths along the center aisle, and get the rest of us riders the trade show swag of our choosing.)

• Loudest vendor party: Greenway Medical, at the Hard Rock Café at Universal Studios.

• Most outrageous cab fare: A $73 tab from Universal to the Orlando Airport. Highway robbery.

Theme of HIMSS14

Under the primary conference theme of "Onward," the subthemes of HIMSS14 included "Innovation," "Impact," and "Outcomes." The focus of vendor exhibits and conference sessions seemed to be usability, optimization, and getting healthcare IT to work for clinicians and actually impacting patient care.

While all vendors certainly showed off their latest systems, devices, gadgets, and software, the underlying theme seemed more focused on making things work, rather than just the dazzle and buzz of the latest and greatest tech gear.

The vendor solutions presented ranged from the broadest-reaching possible, including all-encompassing software and consulting services designed to attempt to handle literally all IT issues across an entire healthcare organization, to extremely narrow niches, such as keyboards that could be used in a sterile environment, or high-performance battery packs for mobile devices.

Getting Down to Business

I have been to many HIMSS conferences, and of course they always offer the latest and greatest. In fact at past conferences the sheer depth and breadth of "what’s new in IT" has seemed overwhelming, almost to the point of leading to technology shellshock among attendees, and gridlock among vendors.

This conference seemed different, at least to me and to several others I talked to. Attendees seemed to be intent on finding solutions, and vendors seemed intent on demonstrating the real-world value of their solutions, tying them into better patient outcomes and provider usability rather than simply the newest tech "bright shiny object."

Mobility, interoperability, security, Telehealth, measurable patient outcomes, etc., were some of the major underlying themes. Vendors who couldn’t somehow tie their solutions into the overall healthcare IT picture - and specifically to the Institute for Healthcare Improvement's Triple Aim of better population health, lower per capita cost, and better patient experience and outcomes - were not perceived as real players on the national healthcare IT stage.

Next Year: Chicago in April

Apparently even the two million square feet of exhibit space in the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando isn’t big enough for HIMSS15. Next year, the conference is moving to the McCormick Place in Chicago, which is about 30 percent bigger. The conference will also be moved from March to April, no doubt out of respect to the Polar Vortex.