HIMSS 2021: The Weird, The Wonderful, and The Worth

With a flurry of risks now virtually inevitable, healthcare organizations need to focus on resilience, requiring preparation and a supportive culture.

Well, that was weird… but in a good way.

As it has in years past, the 2021 HIMSS conference highlighted the biggest challenges and opportunities for technology in healthcare. But even though I had insider information as a member of the HIMSS Advisory Board, this year’s conference was less than predictable.

Optimism was high as the “World of Concrete” tradeshow successfully hosted tens of thousands in Las Vegas in June. However, just as COVID-19 emerged shortly before the 2020 HIMSS conference (forcing its cancellation), the Delta variant appeared weeks before this year’s opening ceremonies. Many friends, colleagues, and even companies withdrew. Those of us who masked up and flew to Vegas weren’t sure what to expect.

The “Good” Weird

Many aspects of the experience were surreal, like sitting in a large room with just a handful of attendees and a remote presenter. But with smaller crowds, it was much easier to connect with fellow attendees (although frequently challenging to recognize them behind their masks!). We could find quiet places to talk, and with less hectic schedules, have a real conversation rather than a cursory “flyby.”

Other adaptations made to prevent COVID-19 spread, such as remote speakers and even video profiles of recipients at the Awards Gala, provided greater diversity and depth of understanding.

The Wonderful

Perhaps most moving was the collective appreciation for what healthcare has been through, punctuated by tributes and a remarkably touching keynote by Rainn Wilson on gratitude, positivity, and empathy.

So many aspects of pandemic response presented opportunities for reflection and development. There was a collective understanding that as the industry has grown, we’re seeing increasing commonalities with other industries.

Enterprise resource planning (ERP), cloud-enabled interoperability, and other needs now challenge electronic health records (EHRs) as institutional priorities to curate a true end-to-end patient experience. Cybersecurity was also front and center, especially due to the spike in ransomware attacks at the beginning of the pandemic. The ubiquity of these experiences provides outstanding examples for others.

The Worth

Discussing public health infrastructure to advanced analytics to workforce well-being, representatives from the smallest hospitals to the Defense Health Agency were sharing learnings and best practices.

Some of the biggest challenges for typical patients are being addressed by some of the most obscure uses. The best example of this was a fascinating discussion of NASA’s use of telemedicine to care for astronauts in space. These learnings could be applied to rural or remote populations to empower patients and non-traditional providers.

Reflecting on what stood out, organizations looking to improve healthcare – from tech to providers and employers – must prioritize this question: “How should our strategy evolve in this new era of healthcare, and do we have the agility to adjust course now and in the future?”

With a flurry of risks now virtually inevitable, healthcare organizations need to focus on resilience, requiring preparation and a supportive culture.

While I expect that the HIMSS conference next year in Orlando will be more “normal,” I hope that some aspects of 2021 will carry forward. Along with the lineup of innovative and top-of-mind issues, the ability to truly connect and discuss the future of healthcare made the journey worthwhile.

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