As recently as three years ago, healthcare information technology was a concern mainly for a cadre of specialists working behind the scenes to keep computer hardware and software humming.
Since then, the information quest has gone mainstream. Escalating needs for data and analysis under managed care have put expansion and innovation in computers and networks atop the list of senior-management objectives at organizations ranging from hospitals and HMOs to physician groups.
The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society's annual conference became a magnet in that quest for information about information technology. Last March's turnout of nearly 13,000 in Atlanta doubled the attendance of two years earlier in Phoenix.
But now a handful of other information technology exhibitions are trying to gain a foothold (See chart).
One rising exhibition was started from scratch last year as part of a conference for users of Microsoft Corp. software. First announced by Chairman Bill Gates at the 1995 HIMSS show in San Antonio, the Microsoft Healthcare Users Group is rapidly gaining in the exhibition market niche of sophisticated systems common to the HIMSS show.
Though tiny compared with HIMSS, the Windows on Healthcare conference has doubled its attendance, added pre-conference workshops, attracted 15 sponsors and sold out all available vendor space at the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas for its second annual gathering later this month, said Glenn Bugala of the users group staff.
Other conferences are aiming mainly at a more basic level of healthcare computer needs that are not being met, organizers say, by high-powered shows such as HIMSS that are slanted toward hospital-based and healthcare-network systems.
A few exhibitions are carved out of established conferences in other sectors such as managed care, home healthcare, medical products and pharmacy. The rationale is that decisionmakers in those areas are seeking out information technology as an integral part of their strategic readiness for managed care.
Comtrade. Begun last year as a "show within a show," this four-day collection of seminars and exhibits is an attempt to broaden the scope of an established trade show, called Medtrade, that originally concentrated on selling medical products to distributors, medical equipment dealers and home-care agencies.
Operated by a for-profit trade show company, Atlanta-based Semco Productions, Medtrade's mix of attendees began to change several years ago, attracting a class of decisionmakers from provider organizations such as hospitals, pharmacies and physician groups who sought a broad spectrum of products, said Mark Simmering, Semco's vice president and chief operating officer.
A survey in 1995 determined that physicians and pharmacists were in the market for computer systems as well as typical medical/surgical products and equipment. Organizers put together a computer technology adjunct to parlay Medtrade's attendance of 32,000 into an underserved area, Simmering said.
Comtrade is leaving the needs of large healthcare systems to HIMSS while targeting small physician groups and clinics that are two or more years behind the information technology learning curve, he said. "A lot of established physicians have very good practices but personally feel that the information age has left them behind," Simmering said.
For the managed-care movement to succeed, it must have an acceptable computer base at the most basic operational and fact-gathering levels, he said. Comtrade will concentrate on office automation and healthcare software providing a quick return on investment, implemented at little expense compared with the industry's more sophisticated classes of technology, Simmering said.
For example, an Internet demonstration planned by Microsoft, Compaq Computer Corp. and MCI Communications Corp. will show what's available on that proliferating medium, how to get on the Internet and how to "catch up and use all the available information to manage a practice better," he said.
That basic provider market also was singled out earlier this year as an underserved and ripe opportunity by Softbank Comdex, the operator of the computer industry's biggest trade show. But after detailing plans to start a healthcare-only computer conference, the company put its plans on indefinite hold.
NMH/IT. This conference, also a show within a show, replaces a conference called HealthInfo that was sponsored by the National Managed Health Care Congress and ran immediately after that forum for constituents in the managed-care industry.
As in the case of Medtrade, "We started to see the lines between information technology and managed care were becoming very, very blurred," said Ann McGrath, NMHCC division manager. "It made no sense to separate them."
The combined exhibition, scheduled for April 14-17, 1997, will sell about the same amount of total floor space, 120,000 square feet, as the two separate conferences did last year, said Sue Deveaux, vice president of national accounts.
But she expects the information technology side to take up 35,000 square feet, or 30% of the total, compared with HealthInfo's 20,000 square feet last year.
Total booths are projected at 1,200, nearly double the combination of 500 at the NMHCC show in spring 1996 and the 150 at the HealthInfo show that followed it, Deveaux said.