No longer bogged down with concerns that their computers will bomb in the new millennium, healthcare information professionals attending this week's annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society meeting in Dallas will instead find themselves navigating the deluge of dot-coms.
Attendance declined last year at the HIMSS meeting in Atlanta for the first time since the group's first big meeting in 1993, because a number of chief information officers and their staffs stayed home to hose down the dreaded Y2K fire.
With the largely uneventful passage of the date change, this year's HIMSS conference shifts its focus to handling new regulations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 and plotting Internet strategies that make sense.
Although conference planners didn't have final figures available last week, they did confirm that the exhibition floor in Dallas will feature significantly more dot-com companies than the Atlanta show. Those walking the exhibit floor will therefore face the challenge of sifting through a myriad of Internet vendors claiming to offer convention-goers a Web-based answer to their toughest business challenges.
The exhibition will feature at least 630 vendors occupying 535,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space. The number of participating vendors is up 35% from last year, says Gary Kurtz, HIMSS' board chairman and senior director of information services at Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa.
Kurtz believes attendance at this year's exhibition will easily surpass the roughly 17,000 on hand last year. As of last week, 12,000 people had registered, up 12% from the same time last year.
Not knowing how much time would be spent in the early stages of 2000 combating Y2K, conference planners rescheduled the show from its traditional February slot to April. Kurtz attributes the spike in early registration to the lack of Y2K troubles that might otherwise have kept people at home.
Accounting for some of the increase in vendors--there are 100 new names this year--is the constantly growing number of dot-coms, which also alters the landscape for more traditional exhibitors. Like technology companies in other industries, they know that the future of healthcare has a lot to do with effective use of the Internet.
"Dot-com, or nondot-com, the Internet will be the hot technology subject for everyone at the show," says Stephen Savas, a vice president and e-health analyst at Goldman Sachs & Co. in New York.
Conference organizers believe the final attendance numbers will constitute a banner year for the HIMSS show, in part because many healthcare organizations postponed other initiatives as they waded through Y2K preparations and now need to catch up. Among the hottest topics will be HIPAA compliance--how to leverage information systems to meet the industry's next major challenge.
The conference will feature several educational sessions and workshops on privacy, security and the role of HIPAA in developing computerized patient records.
"HIPAA and computerized patient records are both areas that are potentially dramatic for us in the near future," says R. Norris Orms, HIMSS' chief operating officer.
For the first time, some of this year's 175 educational sessions will be aired on the World Wide Web so that people unable to attend the conference can still participate by pointing and clicking their way to a seat. Among them are sessions on HIPAA, multimedia medical records and clinical information systems.
For those actually traversing the trade show floor, on-site computers will offer a searchable exhibit database improved since last year.
One of the hallmarks of HIMSS is its annual leadership survey, conducted in tandem with IBM Global Healthcare. By making the survey available on the Web a few weeks before the conference, HIMSS has already processed approximately 1,100 surveys compared with a total of 993 completed last year.
The leadership survey is one of the main tools industry analysts and vendors use to determine the priorities of healthcare organizations. Preliminary survey results will be made available at the beginning of the conference this year; at previous meetings results were held until the final moments.
Regardless of the priorities they name in their surveys, HIMSS attendees will be bombarded with Internet offerings, and their immediate priority will be to separate the empty claims from the legitimate ones.
"It is difficult for people to navigate the maze and haze of the Internet in healthcare," says Goldman Sachs' Savas. "What will be important for attendees is actually spending the time to truly understand what is underneath and behind the flood of claims made by these companies as to what they do."