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HIMSS Talked the Talk. Will Healthcare Leaders Walk the Walk?

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   April 21, 2023

With HIMSS23 in the rear-view mirror, we look back and the challenges, solutions, and strategies that brought healthcare leaders to the Windy City.

HIMSS 2023 packed a punch this week in its hometown of Chicago, with large crowds, a busy agenda, and an exhibit hall that sought to take on the many challenges facing the healthcare industry. But the question remains: Are healthcare leaders ready to embrace change and, in effect, transform a struggling industry?

"Everyone is wondering what the next generation of healthcare is going to look like," said Yan Chow, MD, MBA, a former Kaiser Permanente executive who now serves as a global industry leader for Automation Anywhere, which develops intelligent automation software. "Are we ready to take that step?"

An Eye on Automation

Chow's company is part of an automation and AI wave that permeated almost every nook and cranny of McCormick Place, reflecting a desire by the industry to embrace technologies and strategies designed to make workflows easier and boost efficiency and outcomes. There were plenty of stories about health systems using AI to improve back-end business services or sort through available data to pull out the right information for the right task, either business or clinical.

Many see automation as a tool to addressing healthcare workforce shortages, clearly one of the biggest challenges facing the industry. With burnout and stress at record levels and clinicians, IT specialists, and other support staff retiring or quitting, health systems are looking to improve workflows to reduce stress and create virtual and hybrid care platforms that give employees more leeway (and, hopefully, satisfaction with their job). Key to that is automating repetitive tasks and processes that focus on data entry and analysis.

"What [clinicians] would like to do is practice medicine," noted Paul Brient, chief product officer at athenahealth. "What they don’t want to do is all that other crap."

Chow said C-level executives are now getting involved in the decision-making process because they see the value of innovation and technology, and they're mapping out enterprise-wide strategies. That was seen at ViVE as well, which attracted an impressive number of CIOs, CTOs, and even some CEOs.

The upshot: They're thinking of organizational change, not incremental steps forward.

"I can't bring in point solutions any more—I need platforms," said Eve Cunningham, MD, MBA, a vice president and chief of virtual care and digital health at Providence Health, who was there to scrutinize digital health products and unveil the health system's new Hospital at Home program.

Cunningham's thoughts are also reflective of a change in the healthcare innovation space, seen at HIMSS, ViVE, and other events. An industry that once focused on brand-new technology and tools is now more interested in how they're being used, and especially how they're showing value. Telehealth, of and by itself, isn't an innovation any more, but how it's used in different situations and how it's showing ROI are the attention-getters.

Cunningham noted Providence has a telestroke platform that allows two neurologists to cover more than 90 hospitals within the network, and a telemental health program that can treat patients in more than 40 hospitals from one clinic. That's what healthcare leaders want to see and talk about.

"There are a lot of health systems that have innovation fatigue," she said. Events like HIMSS, she added, allow health system leaders to "get the lay of the land and hear from thought leaders" on how to make their technologies work.

"It's all about evidence now," she said.

ChatGPT: The Shiny New Object

That doesn't mean HIMSS was devoid of shiny new ideas. One of the shiniest, of course, is ChatGPT.

"The reason ChatGPT became so big is that they gave wide access to it," Chow said of OpenAI's chatbot, one of the industry's fastest-growing tools and the focus of the HIMSS opening keynote. Both Epic and Microsoft have quickly embraced the technology, aiming to integrate it within the EHR platform.

Chow said a number of academic medical centers have approached him with requests to help develop an AI strategy that includes ChatGPT.

Sophy Lu, senior vice president and chief information officer at Northwell Health, said ChatGPT is certainly intriguing, with a variety of use cases that will be good for healthcare, but at the moment the hype is overshadowing the practicality. Health systems and vendors are jumping on the bandwagon without taking the time to wait for the technology to become more mature.

From Disruption to Transformation

ChatGPT might be considered disruptive because it's prompting healthcare executives to change how they look at healthcare delivery, but many are starting to think that "disruption" might be the wrong way to describe the forces of change within healthcare these days. Noted digital health influencer and radio host Gil Bashe said the attitude in Chicago was one of transformation, even enthusiasm.

"Just as the world is rebooting as the COVID cloud perceptually passes, HIMSS23 shows that the health IT community has returned with a passion for learning what’s just around the corner and a practical mindset for maximizing investments in infrastructure to improve care and reduce cost," he wrote in a recent analysis of the event.

Indeed, while the post-COVID economy edges toward a recession and healthcare organizations struggle to stay afloat, McCormick Place was busy. The two exhibit halls were crowded, the booths larger and more festive than last year's muted affair in Orlando, and the keynotes and sessions spread out across the sprawling complex were well-attended.

And HIMSS, facing spirited competition from the likes of HLTH and ViVE, was ready to put on a show, adding exhibit hall social events with drink carts, a puppy pavilion (now seemingly a standard at all events), and a 'Taste of HIMSS' food court.

"You come to HIMSS because it is HIMSS," athenahealth's Brient pointed out. "It really is a connecting event for us."

Making a Pitch For Partnership

Even the so-called disruptors were there, and looking to prove that the healthcare industry should be focused on collaboration rather than competition.

"We know they're getting pressure from new [participants in the healthcare space]," said Chris McGhee, co-founder and CEO of Current Health, the home-based care services platform acquired by Best Buy in 2021. "We give them a way to consumerize healthcare."

Best Buy made waves earlier this year when it announced a partnership with Atrium Health to support the North Carolina-based health system's Hospital at Home program. Hospital and Home and remote patient monitoring platforms are two of the fastest growing services in the industry, and they represent and effort by healthcare to expand the care platform away from the hospital, clinic, and doctor's office and into the patient's home.

“This is the coming together of technology and empathy,” Rasu Shrestha, executive vice president and chief innovation and commercialization officer for Advocate Health, part of Atrium Health, said in a press release announcing the partnership. “We're able to leverage the power of social workers, paramedics, nurses and physicians, but also technology to take care of the patients in their homes. We can bring forward things like remote patient monitoring and sophisticated wearable devices that capture their vital signs and combine it with the human touch – bringing it directly into our patients’ homes."

Hospital at Home and RPM were part of the playbook at HIMSS as well, and McGhee was on hand to explain how health systems should be pairing up with the retail industry to give both providers and patients access to the tools they need to enhance those pathways.

"We're fundamentally changing healthcare," he said, noting the Best Buy can pick and choose the technology needed to make the best and most reliable connections between a patient in the homes and his or her care team at a hospital. "Hospitals value that curation."

Indeed, with companies like Amazon, Google, Walmart, and Salesforce entering the space, the talk at HIMSS was not about how to counter those retail giants, but how to work with them.

Salesforce, which moved into the healthcare space roughly eight years ago with data products based in the cloud, is also trying to get hospitals interested in consumerism. The company's lavish, shrubbery-filled booth offered an attractive, oasis-like invitation to customer relationship management (CRM), from which it unveiled its new Customer 360 for Health platform.

"We're offering an engagement and relationship layer that healthcare definitely needs," said Amit Khanna, the company's senior vice president and general manager of health and life sciences. "Healthcare needs those relationship tools."

Khanna said healthcare organizations have been slow to embrace consumer-facing care, and they're facing a backlash from consumers and patients who have seen the retail, banking, travel, and entertainment industries meet their needs and want health systems to do the same.

"You can book an appointment with your banker easily, but you can't make an appointment to see a doctor," he pointed out.

All In For Interoperability?

Aside from the new ideas and entries in healthcare, HIMSS also highlighted a long-standing challenge in healthcare: Interoperability. Data sharing and interoperability are crucial to the expansion of value-based care. Intriguing examples were featured in the Interoperability Showcase, in various sessions and in booths across the exhibit halls, where attendees talked of sharing data from various sources, structured and unstructured, inside and outside the hospital walls, to create a complete patient record.

"We are at such an exciting time in the data interoperability journey," noted Steven Lane, MD, MPH, chief medical officer for Health Gorilla, one of six organizations recently selected by the US Health and Human Services Department to begin implementing the Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement (TEFCA) standards, the first step toward becoming a designated Qualified Health Information Network (QHIN).

Lane said the TEFCA standards, QHIN announcement, recent information blocking rules, and expended revisions to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability (HIPAA) guidelines to account for digital health technology have all been positive steps in the move toward a nationwide healthcare information exchange.

"It's getting a lot of people thinking about interoperability," he said. "And we need to be thinking about and talking about … expanding the participants. One of the challenges going forward will be how we actually put all the data to work."

"Data usability is certainly a key," added Rita Bowen, vice president of privacy, compliance and health information management policy for MRO, a clinical data exchange company, and a member of the board of director for the Sequoia Project, which was designated the TEFCA Recognized Coordinating Entity. "We think the industry is getting ready. The technology is certainly ready."

Lane admitted that interoperability isn't as sexy as ChatGPT or the Hospital at Home movement, so it might be overlooked in the HIMSS headlines and roundups, but it's a foundation to healthcare. Digital health and telehealth programs rely on the exchange of data between different platforms, and the ongoing national effort to address health equity and the social determinants of health (SDOH) will rely on the ability to pull information from a wide range of sources into the clinical record.

"Getting the data and actually working it into workflows is what matters," he said.

So as thousands of HIMSS attendees flood into O'Hare and Midway and make their way home at the end of the week, will strategies like RPM, patient engagement and activation, prior authorization, AI and automation, and digital health take hold? Will these strategies help healthcare organizations to bolster the workforce, reduce burnout and stress, boost clinical outcomes and keep the lights on in hospitals across the country?

If the attendance and activity at HIMSS—and at HLTH and ViVE prior—are any indication, the healthcare industry is shaking itself free of the COVID doldrums and looking to move forward. They're talked the talk and seen the options. It's time to walk the walk.

“Everyone is wondering what the next generation of healthcare is going to look like. Are we ready to take that step?”

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.


The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) returned to its home city of Chicago this past week with HIMSS23, and saw good crowds and enthusiasm at McCormick Place.

Healthcare's biggest tech event took aim at the biggest issues facing the industry, from workforce shortages and burnout to interoperability challenges and the hype around AI.

Experts and decision-makers say the industry has to adopt a strategy of transformation and collaboration to survive in a struggling economy.

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