As soon as the planes landed and the floor started buzzing at HIMSS’21, there were questions about the conference itself, its future, and what had been learned about healthcare and HIT since last March. There were noticeably fewer people and obvious gaps on the show floor; throughout the week, vendors had a reduced presence or had even pulled out entirely.

However, the most glaring absence was in provider attendees, dealing a major blow to the long-term prospects of the conference. HIMSS can only hope that this was a temporary blip, driven by organizational need and concern over the Delta variant and transmission numbers in Las Vegas. Even if they’re right, can we expect Florida to look substantially better seven months from now?

Key Takeaways

  • In-person conferences still have a lot to offer, but it may not be enough to save mega-shows. This was a valuable reminder of the worth of in-person conferences. But the diminishing audience and high costs make HIMSS a dubious prospect if your organization’s goal is strictly business development.
  • Interoperability, Life Science datasets, and RCM ruled the show floor. We’ve published a lot on the risks and the promise of healthcare patient data being sold, but whatever reservations the industry has weren’t on display at HIMSS.
  • Virtual care vendors need to be worried about the future of regulation. The industry is far too comfortable expecting that everything will work out. There’s still a lot of work to be done to secure a solid foundation for everything that virtual care can offer.

There’s Value Here, but for Whom?

The return of in-person conferences resolved a question that has been brewing for years: is everything involved in in-person tradeshows and conferences worth it? Is there a point to all the travel, all the stress, cramming thirty-ish miles of walking into three days of furious talking, when nowadays we can sit at our desks and have relatively similar conversations?

For us, there definitely is. In a vastly scaled-down HIMSS, the value showed itself even more. Unexpected conversations and impromptu discussions were more in-depth than ever. We could meet new people and new companies, learn about them without a crush of people at our backs and without yelling over the roar of the convention. But is there enough value to justify the cost of these enormous shows? Attendance numbers at this HIMSS are being reported at anywhere between nine and twenty thousand, but the lower numbers seem a lot more plausible.

That implies about four or five thousand providers. It’s not a lot if you were hoping to find leads or make connections, especially for smaller vendors. Most booths were sparsely attended even by the standards of such a scaled-down show. Gaps on the floor and in the online vendor list showed just how many companies decided to forgo attending. As the year progresses, we will have the chance to see how this HIMSS stacks up against some of the smaller regional events. If that style is going to be the future of the convention circuit going forward, we’ll start to see it this year.

Interoperability, Life Science, and RCM Led the Way

Those were the hot booths and omnipresent topics this year, followed by cybersecurity and then telehealth, remote patient monitoring, and digital front doors as a distant third tier. At HIMSS and as a group, it seemed like these vendors were more consistently busy than any other category. Most of the interoperability vendors report dramatically more work caused by COVID-19; the steep rise in testing required new connections and more transactions for existing customers.

Longer term, almost all are bullish about better connectivity with public health. With new federal funding for public health data infrastructure about the be unleashed, all the work these vendors did to rapidly support case reporting and immunization reporting will lead to more and different use cases. Meanwhile, RCM and patient payment solutions showed the growing concern over the healthcare bottom line. Look for a more in-depth examination of the issues and technologies being brought to bear here in our upcoming RPA in RCM Market Trends Report.

Behavioral Health was a Surprising Gap

A lot of ink has been spilled about the amount of money flowing into HIT, and behavioral health solutions are getting a well-deserved share of it. Those investments haven’t solved the institutional obstacles surrounding BH as a field, from limited reimbursements, to lack of access, to lack of providers. With a few impressive exceptions like Appriss Health, Therapy Brands, and Ellipsis Health, behavioral health vendors were notably absent from the HIMSS floor and from the conversation overall.

The Status Quo of Virtual Care Regulation is Not Set in Stone

The response was universal: “We’ve crossed the point of no return,” “There’s too much inertia to go back now,” “It’s too popular to ever go back.” No matter whom I asked, no one was concerned about the laundry list of waivers, exceptions, and public-health emergency regulations that have helped drive the adoption of virtual care over the last fifteen months. Even as they’ve begun to expire in some states, confidence is high that the value of the technology and the convenience for patients will stop the US from reverting back to the bad old days.

They might be right! But the confidence borders on overconfidence, and I worry that there’s too much focus on pressing forward, and not enough on making sure that the foundations of this revolution in care are well-established. Organizations like the American Telemedicine Association are working hard to try to preserve the progress we’ve made in defining and supporting virtual care technologies. The more providers, patients, and vendors vocally support bills like Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale’s Rural Telehealth Expansion Act, the more likely we are to continue to reap the benefits of virtual care options.