HIMSS Las Vegas: First-Time Attendee Impressions

Health ELT Team March 29, 2016

Last week our team had its first introduction to the world of the HIMSS annual conference. For those who aren’t familiar, HIMSS is the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, a large trade organization that brings together tens of thousands of individuals, corporations, and organizations under the banner of “better health through technology.” Touted as one of the largest American trade shows, this year’s version brought over 50,000 attendees to the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas at the Venetian, a fitting scene for what has become the “it” event for anyone working around health information technology.

HIMSS is overwhelming immediately upon arrival: with its size and scope it’s impossible not to be. Matching the aforementioned Vegas locale and 50,000 attendees, 1,300 vendors filled a multi-level exhibit hall, covering 1.3 million square feet. For ten hours a day, sessions and speakers spanned five floors and theatres typically reserved for Broadway musicals.

For our team, whose primary conference and industry exposure is in Medicaid and public health, we found it difficult to make sense of the spectacle. It’s one thing for golf shows and CES and car shows to grow into extravaganza. Those industries are about luxury consumer experiences, but at a healthcare conference? Forgive us if those things felt out of place.

We appreciate the business development potential at a conference with such a large attendance. We see the appeal of an incredible exhibit space built two stories high with temporary conference rooms. And we’re not going to say we didn’t indulge in custom cappuccinos perusing the aisles, but remembering what we as a company are all about — remembering how tightly Medicaid plans and state agencies have to run to afford healthcare for those who need it most — makes it hard to think of million-dollar exhibit-hall booths and extravagant parties.

It’s also hard to make sense of in the flow of a day. It’s an experiential non sequitur to leave a session in which Winona Health describes holistically managing complex needs of 124 Medicaid and Medicare members through a community network with incredible grace and then walk straight onto an exhibit floor riddled with expansive, multi-level sales cathedrals that absolutely would dwarf both our Dallas and Nashville Health: ELT offices combined. It’s difficult to hear repeatedly about struggles with funding, cost-containment, and the need for investment in under-served populations only to see ostentatious reminders of billions of corporate dollars at work in the industry. It’s hard enough to generate and spend such dollars efficiently, especially in the realm of public health, without seeing those same healthcare-system dollars spent on baristas and bartenders for exhibitions.

Despite our experiential qualms, the HIMSS conference consistently delivered great content. Admittedly the conversations were a bit more diversely engaging than our dry (but critically important) discussions of long term care funding and managed care rules over in Medicaid. Sessions that we had marked as potentially interesting turned out to be hugely engaging. There was obvious value in bringing together a range of stakeholders under the healthcare IT banner, and even niche interests would be able to find a good mix of sessions and or exhibits of great import to themselves as healthcare-industry worker and healthcare consumer.

So where does the industry go? Smart people have already begun to pull back the curtains on buzzwords of the day, revealing them for the vacuous phrases they’ve become. Arien Malec (VP, RelayHealth) wandered the HIMSS exhibit hall marveling at the repetitive use of buzz phrases and musing, “We are at risk of ‘precision medicine’ meaning nothing.” In a later tweet-storm, Malec excellently dissected the gap between the hype surrounding interoperability, another current buzz term, and the realities of implementation. In a piece published on our site, our own UX designer, Stephanie Sefcik, analyzed the prevalence of the term “patient engagement,” asserting the need for stronger accountability metrics so that organizations can actually know what that term could and should entail. Furthermore, some terms were noticeably absent from the HIMSS discussion in comparison to the way we see them dissected in Medicaid and underserved populations, including “social determinants of health” as noted by both Bernadette Keefe and Mandi Bishop. The understanding that a small percentage of the population accounts for a high percentage of healthcare costs is finally becoming common knowledge, but we must dig deeper into what causes this population to be so expensive to treat. Often, the answer lies in complex care needs (I/DD, behavioral health, substance abuse), high ER utilization, and poor understanding of those aforementioned social determinants such as living spaces, resources, diet, and work schedule. These conversations will have to reach the forefront — not simply the niche vantage point — of the discussion to really push the industry discussions into places it most needs to be.

Where do we, at Health: ELT, go? Despite our personal frustrations with the process, we will soon begin work on an array of proposals to be submitted for a speaking slot at HIMSS17 in Orlando. If we are accepted a second time, we won’t be as doe-eyed as this first pass – how didn’t we learn from Mandi Bishop’s stylish sneaker choices this time? – and our small startup will be at least a year older, wiser, and farther into our work with Medicaid needs assessments in Texas, Illinois, and places yet unknown. Until then, we’ll continue to advocate for the power of mobile engagement of both clinicians and patients, intuitive design paradigms that reach the bar set by consumer expectations, free and accessible data, and above all strident financial accountability in both Medicaid and healthcare as a whole. We sense we’ll always be pushing the discussion to the side of accountability, using our voice to represent the needs of the populations we hope to engage.