Trend Tracker: Roadmaps to Navigate

I'm expecting to see all sorts of C-suite hospital execs and healthcare IT gurus wandering the aisles at the HIMSS 2006 meeting this month, many claiming to be in search of the future. But if you really want a future in 2007 that keeps you employed in 2006, the suggestion is to "walk softly - and carry a big stick." You know, the stick marked - "Payment will be made upon customer acceptance of completed testing per specification." That's right - the stick exclusively reserved for your current vendors of projects in progress.

Yes, there will be many can't-miss educational sessions at HIMSS, a packed minefield of exhibitors to navigate and plenty of colleagues interested in shoptalk. On display, there will be many valuable products that can bring immediate value into your healthcare organization.  

But as attendees sort through the countless propositions to find actionable value, the bold go forth heavily armored. The bottom line? At this meeting, the primary objective is to concentrate on ensuring that your current projects will in fact deliver the promised value.
In reality, most attendees aren't searching for the perfect healthcare IT solution or even the best solution, despite exhibit hall advertising and hopes to the contrary. Many CIOs have now given up looking for their ROI on last year's projects. That's certainly understandable, after all of the integration issues and extra costs that appeared on the road to installation.

Attendees are more likely confirming their selections for this year's projects, many of which reside in safety zones of applications and vendors that deliver incremental improvements to the existing jumble of network and clinical solutions.  

You will likely recognize today's typical hospital IT environment - the one with multiple networks, telephone systems and different suppliers of HIS, pharmacy, PACS, RIS, LIS and billing systems.

What to look for

The message to HIMSS attendees this year is to decide if your present vendors are going to still be with you two to three years from now. The unwritten question is "Do they have what it takes to keep up with both the market and my needs?"  

OK, it sounds like an unfair task, but the signs of life are not too difficult to spot in these creatures. Here are a few recommendations.

1. Please show me your roadmap
The vendors with a future all have a roadmap that defines the path of their products over the next two, three and five years. This includes extensions of current functions, new functions, new applications and inter-connections to other systems.

The key is to learn if you and the vendor are on the same road, hopefully yes. Simply put, the future is an integrated enterprise of clinical systems able to connect with the distributed universe of care providers and mobile patients. The details on this are a laundry list of functions that support the work processes of your facility.

At the leading vendors, everyone knows about this tool. If you don't find it after a few queries, the red flag should go up - do these people really know where they are going, or are they on the path to "dead end IT" or a candidate for consolidation.

2. Tell me about interoperability
The buzzword for 2005 returns again in 2006 - bigger and stronger. Interoperability includes some measurable and finite performance metrics, and it also represents a commitment to product design and development that connects systems and work processes in a multi-vendor world.  

The use of standards and open systems is noted and advertised by these suppliers, and they generally have a bias towards rejection of proprietary tools. Interoperability can deliver solid value to users, but often offers less value to vendors - which explains some of the market tension in this area over the past few years. Interoperability has seen extensive development, but much of this work remains unused to date and not built into products for sale. So, ask, listen and learn.

3. Let's talk technology & IT developments
The world of healthcare IT progress depends in large degree upon progress in the larger IT world. Please ask your current and potential vendors what developments from the mainstream IT world they are building in to their new products. Among the many technologies that are driving change in IT are telecommunications, CPUs (multi-core), networks, graphics chips, data storage and display monitors.  

4. Upgrades
Want to lose some sleep at night? Try checking out the P&L statements of your IT vendors. After a few bad quarters, you might want to consider a new vendor when the time arrives for an upgrade. The fiscal health of your key suppliers impacts your potential for cost-effective upgrades, where additional value is usually easily achieved.

In summary, the message to HIMSS attendees is to affirm that you and your vendors are headed down the same road. HIMSS exhibitors should proudly discuss their roadmaps which showcase clinical expertise and paths to enterprise-level Interoperability. When the paths of exhibitors and attendees align, value can be achieved and profits are certain to follow.

Douglas F. Orr is principal of J&M Group. Send Trend Tracker questions and comments to