HIMSS puts theory to practice in the Big Easy

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The HIMSS 2007 Annual Conference kicked off yesterday in New Orleans, a location ideal for the conference focused on health information technology (IT) advancements due to its ongoing recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The storm left thousands of residents in the Gulf Coast region that relied on paper records without any health records at all.

In truth, New Orleans was selected as the site for the conference years ago. But the location gives the organization an opportunity to emphasize some important issues not only to the impacted area but for healthcare in general.

One of the big goals at this year’s event is taking all of the health IT theory and other talk in the health information technology industry and putting it to tangible practice for attendees, said H. Stephen Lieber, president & CEO, HIMSS. Towards that goal the conference is emphasizing some of the usual subjects in health IT such as EHRs, RHIOs, pay-for-performance, standards harmonization, and numerous others.

But, Lieber emphasized, HIMSS doesn’t structure the annual conference around a particular tagline or theme for the year. The conference is way too large, he said, with 300-plus sessions and countless events that focus on the full spectrum of “everything going on in healthcare IT.”

This year’s event is shaped around two main concepts. Firstly it is “organized around end-user focused practical solutions. This is the kind of conference that you go home with stuff that you can use,” he said. The second core concept is “community.” With an expected 23,000 to 25,000 people attending, the idea of community is important because it is a “recognition that IT is the function of multiple stakeholders and for any organization, whether in an ambulatory or acute care setting, to be successful all of those stakeholders must be engaged and must be engaged together,” he said.

Years ago HIMSS designed programs specifically for doctors and nurses, but since they have expanded the programs to include more and more disciplines, such as payers, pharmacists, clinical engineers, and most recently supply chain management professions starting this year, said Lieber.

Beyond this broad view, Lieber emphasized the IHE Showcase in booth #7511 is a “cornerstone” of the HIMSS conference. Last year thousands of attendees took part in the showcase by physically going through and registering themselves like patients watching their records moving from vendor to vendor, and hospital to hospital.

The IHE event is “using real live products to demonstrate that they really do communicate from vendor to vendor and that the data does move as it’s supposed to,” he said.

Attendees also should look for HIMSS to emphasize the suite of applications that comprise an electronic health record. Especially at larger institutions the EHR is not necessarily a single piece of hardware, he said, adding that the “concept” of an EHR is “the most prominent issue on the agenda for HIT professionals right now.”

Look for other hot-button issues to be widely addressed too, such as care quality initiatives to help insure better patient outcomes and medical errors, as well as addressing privacy and security for handling of data to ensure confidentiality.

As for emerging topics, Lieber feels that personal health records (PHRs) will be a large part of the discussion during the week. Several major non-healthcare organizations like Walmart and others are looking at PHRs as a mechanism for helping people manage their healthcare, he said.

The organization also will put some focus on its efforts in the Katrina aftermath to help New Orleans and the surrounding region recover, such as the Katrina Phoenix initiative to help recovering medical practices shift to electronic records. Also, HIMSS has adopted a local health clinic in that was created directly after Katrina called the Common Ground Health Clinic, a fully functioning health clinic serving the Algiers neighborhood. HIMSS has adopted the clinic to bring some focus and attention and hopefully some resources to the work being done there, Lieber said.

“We’ve been doing some things to try to put the focus on the rebuilding in the area from a healthcare and technology standpoint, and to do what we can to encourage people to help communities to rebuild. It makes the need and value of electronic data management very real," he added.