HIMSS is more important than you may think

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This week's HIMSS meeting in Orlando, Fla., is one of the most important business conferences in any field this year. The reason is that rapidly rising health costs are driving federal and state budget deficits and making insurance unaffordable to many employers and individuals. The leading ideas to reform healthcare, including medical homes and accountable care organizations, depend on health IT. So, with the government's program to promote electronic health records and connectivity just starting to hit its stride, what will happen at HIMSS is immensely consequential.

To be sure, there are only a handful of presentations directly related to accountable care organizations. But the overwhelming emphasis on interoperability at HIMSS is not just about meaningful use. It's beginning to dawn on many healthcare providers that they will have to build or participate in larger organizations that coordinate care across the spectrum, from ambulatory care to EDs and hospitals to nursing homes and home care. It won't be possible to do this unless 1) most providers have EHRs and 2) those EHRs can communicate with each other.

The other piece that a number of vendors at HIMSS will be addressing is the provider-patient connection. While the percentage of consumers with active personal health records recently passed 10 percent, this field still has a long way to go before it will really make an impact on health behavior and outcomes. John Moore at Chilmark Research points out that the VA/CMS "Blue Button," which allows beneficiaries to download their records, and the Direct Project, which lets physicians message each other securely, could help change this dynamic. I think he's right, especially with Microsoft enabling doctors to copy their clinical communications to patients' PHRs on HealthVault. But it's going to take a while.

Finally, let's not forget about meaningful use. The College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) has asked the Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT to hold up on finalizing Stage 2 Meaningful Use criteria until the impact of Stage 1 criteria has been studied. That's reasonable. But even if the bar is lowered for Stages 2 and 3, the overall effect of meaningful use on the healthcare industry will still be huge. In effect, the effort of meeting requirements for using EHRs to coordinate care, report quality data and exchange clinical information is starting to turn the whole healthcare ship around.

All of this, of course, represents a giant challenge for the healthcare industry. But if anybody can rise to that challenge, I think, it's the enterprising, imaginative individuals who will be attending HIMSS this week. - Ken