Health care’s digital transformation will take center stage in Orlando, Fla., next week at the industry’s most influential technology conference, a gathering whose exponential growth is a metaphor for the change sweeping through one of America’s biggest economic sectors.
Once a meeting of a few thousand health technology insiders, the annual conference of the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) now attracts more than 40,000 attendees and some of the world’s biggest companies.
It is a place where the ambitions of Amazon (AMZN), Google, Microsoft, and other tech giants converge — and sometimes clash — before an audience of doctors, politicians, and hospital executives. As opposed to years past, when the embrace of digital health was more tentative, those audience members are now enthusiastically encouraging the tech companies’ incursions into hospital operations and clinical care.
This year’s gathering is expected to offer real evidence of that shift: Several titans of tech and telecommunications, as well as smaller startups, will offer case studies of how their products — from algorithms, to smart speakers, to cloud software applications — are being incorporated into medical practices across the country. Google executives alone will participate in more than 20 panel discussions and presentations.
“We’ve reached this inflection point where in the next 12 to 24 months, we’ll get out of the early-adopter cycle and start to see tech move more into the mainstream in health care,” said Ric Sinclair, chief of product at Waystar, a company applying AI to hospital revenue collections. “I’m stoked by that. I think it can do a lot of good.”
The conference will also include speeches by top federal health officials, including Dr. Don Rucker, the national coordinator for health information technology, and the chief of Medicare and Medicaid, Seema Verma.
Verma is expected to unveil new policies related to the administration’s efforts to increase data sharing among health care institutions and give patients more control of their medical records.
While enthusiasm for digital health is growing, HIMSS also remains a medically focused meeting where clinical leaders and health care information specialists emphasize the need to separate hype from reality, hope from evidence.
Doctors are getting deluged with data and pitches for new algorithms and software applications whose purveyors promise to make their lives easier, improve the quality of care, and lower costs. But there remains a central question in medicine of when adoption of these products will pay off, instead of just adding another layer of cost and complication.
The good news, according to conference veterans, is that awareness of that question among technology companies is growing.
“If you talk to doctors, they are not in love with the idea of people just sending them reams of data … off devices they don’t necessarily trust, and then being held accountable if they don’t make use of that information,” said Mark Weber, a senior vice president at Infor, a provider of cloud software products to health care companies. “What they want to see is how that overall internet of things is really going to come together” in clinical practice.
Technology companies will be making a slew of announcements on that front throughout the week. One of the biggest questions heading into the conference is whether makers of smart speakers such as Amazon and Google will unveil products that are compliant with patient privacy laws, an impediment to the use of the technology in clinical care. The agenda is also filled with presentations on products designed to make the cost of drugs and medical procedures more transparent, and make better clinical use of genomic data.
The use of artificial intelligence to achieve those latter goals is perhaps the clearest theme running through the week. Talks about AI will span a huge spectrum of uses, from analyzing medical images, to predicting the onset of health emergencies, to automating back-of-house tasks such as billing.
Many industry incumbents and newcomers are expected to unveil products and algorithms designed to increase remote monitoring of patients and make the delivery of care more convenient.
Heading into the conference, MDLIVE, one of the nation’s largest telemedicine providers, announced a new initiative to allow its provider clients to offer asynchronous virtual visits — consultations in which the patient submits a recording of his or her symptoms and gets a prescription or care plan from a physician within two hours. The conditions to be covered by the service include common problems such as pink eye, sinus infections, and urinary tract infections.
“It comes down to three issues — how do we improve the convenience of getting care, how do we make the quality as high as possible, and how do we make it as cost-effective as possible?” said Dr. Lyle Berkowitz, chief medical officer of MDLIVE. “We believe this solves multiple issues for a type of routine, repeatable type of care that allows us to truly scale the system.”
Berkowitz, whose been attending HIMSS since the mid-1990s, said the conference has evolved from a niche trade show where attendees were just trying to understand electronic medical records, to one where those records are now the jumping off point for an ecosystem of entrepreneurs seeking to make health care more tolerable for its patients and providers.
“It used to be all techies, but now you have people who are concerned not just about technology, but the people and process needed to make that successful,” he said. “You’re going to a place where everyone is thinking about, ‘How can I use information technology to make care better, faster, and cheaper?’”