Healthcare information professionals who belong to the industry's trade group historically have been squeezed into one of only a few categories the group uses to describe the role its members play in technology or management.
That may soon change. The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society has plans to create subgroups that bring together members with common areas of interest.
In creating the framework for special interest groups, or SIGs, HIMSS planners hope to encourage members to voluntarily propose, join and lead efforts to address timely industry challenges and goals.
"If you are just a society that generically approaches the field, you're going to miss providing the right programs and services," said Steve Lieber, HIMSS' executive director.
Prior to assuming his post at HIMSS, Lieber was vice president of personal membership groups for the American Hospital Association, the former home of HIMSS. The society stepped out from under the AHA umbrella in 1993 when membership growth justified forming an independent group.
Now, with more than 13,000 registered members, HIMSS has become so large that dividing into special interest groups is one way to more effectively serve members, Lieber said.
Prior to the introduction of SIGs, HIMSS members were designated as representatives of one of four industry subcategories: management engineering, telecommunications, information systems and clinical systems.
"The old constituencies were too broad and they weren't really dynamic," said Pamela McNutt, a HIMSS board member and vice president and chief information officer of Methodist Hospital of Dallas. "We think (SIGs) will be a great breeding ground for education sessions and publication material."
Describing SIGs as "very fluid," McNutt said the dynamic nature of topics in healthcare--the Y2K bug and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act are good examples--requires that specialized groups be changed, updated or eliminated to fit into the evolving industry landscape.
Changes made to HIMSS' bylaws to accommodate the SIGs officially go into effect on July 1, by which time HIMSS planners expect the initiative to be well under way.
HIMSS officials said they will give SIGs the tools they need to communicate and stay connected to their missions, including Internet-based communication networks, which would securely connect many outposts of SIG activity through the HIMSS World Wide Web site.
"We are committed to and have plans in place to work with these groups to keep them feeling connected with one another," McNutt said.
The HIMSS membership department will provide services to SIGs and be responsible for evaluating project proposals that require budgetary outlays.
Lieber said one example of a SIG project might be a resource book on emergency department clinical systems. Because many such specialized resources are not currently available to members, SIGs may be the ideal way to develop and distribute them, he said.
As for the time commitment required to lead one of the SIGs, McNutt said it would be substantial but not impossible for many members. Since any SIG must have at least 25 members to be considered for recognition by the HIMSS board, McNutt's hope is that responsibilities would be shared among each group's members.
Although leadership responsibilities may require more of a time commitment, Lieber encourages HIMSS members to join a SIG even if their involvement is based purely on interest and not on active participation.
The annual HIMSS conference and exhibition, which attracted 17,300 people to the Dallas Convention Center last month, may also reap the benefits of the subgroups, HIMSS officials said.
In addition to dedicating meeting space and programming time for face-to-face SIG meetings, members would also participate in the larger conference by facilitating educational sessions in their areas of interest.
Amy Vrabel, a HIMSS member and vice chair of information services at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., believes the SIGs may increase and add value to dialogue that is often cut short by events with limited time frames, such as the annual conference.
Vrabel was unsure she would commit to a SIG if it involved beefing up her travel schedule, but she was enthusiastic about opportunities to exchange ideas and information online.
As new SIGs are established and begin charting their courses, McNutt anticipates that the HIMSS board will regularly evaluate the system to determine how much structure is necessary and to solve other problems as they arise.