Complying with new patient privacy regulations is the No. 1 priority of health information professionals and the topic that dominated the chatter at last week's meeting of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society in New Orleans.
According to preliminary results of HIMSS' annual Leadership Survey released at the convention last week, 79% of healthcare providers said compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 is the "top business issue facing healthcare in the next two years."
Despite the high ranking of HIPAA in their surveys, 14% of respondents said they have not begun to prepare for compliance, compared with 24% last year. HIMSS officials said they had hoped fewer organizations-somewhere around 5%-would report no progress at all.
As HIPAA begins to dominate the radar screens of healthcare decisionmakers, the interest in Internet technology may be subsiding. Forty-six percent of respondents named Internet initiatives as a top information technology priority during the next 12 months, down from 63% in last year's survey.
That doesn't necessarily mean the Web will be ignored in the march toward HIPAA compliance.
"(Mayo Clinic) will do more with Internet technology each progressive year," said Walter Menning, chairman of the HIMSS board of directors and vice chairman of information services at the Mayo Foundation in Rochester, Minn.
The preliminary results include responses from 470 provider organizations representing a cross-section of senior executives from IT managers to finance chiefs. About 53% of the providers surveyed are healthcare systems; 22% represent stand-alone hospitals, and the remainder are a mixed bag of physician practices and long-term-care and military facilities.
Many in the industry, observers at the HIMSS conference agreed, do not yet view HIPAA as an opportunity to drive efficiency and cut costs. Although still preliminary, results of the survey could bolster that argument. Improving operational efficiency was ranked as the second most important priority last year by 60% of respondents; this year, 44% named it a top priority.
"Some providers see the investment stream and the effort required (for HIPAA) but not the gold at the end of the shaft," Menning said.
Menning and others said providers will eventually make the connection between the seemingly formidable regulations and enhanced efficiency for their organizations.
"HIPAA compliance will serve as a catalyst for operational efficiency," said Charles Bracken, executive vice president of Superior Consultant Co., a Southfield, Mich.-based healthcare consulting firm that co-sponsored the HIMSS survey along with Dell Computer Corp., Austin, Texas.
Several conference attendees-representing the provider and vendor communities alike-were surprised to learn that 53% of providers said they have assessed organizational compliance. That number seems high, they said, because some HIPAA regulations have yet to be completed and the privacy provisions were completed less than two months ago.
"I share the skepticism about whether providers have explored every component of the regulation," Bracken said.
With 675 vendors exhibiting wares at the convention last week, it was hard to walk the trade show floor without hearing about ways to cross the HIPAA chasm using information technology.
Despite the enthusiasm of consultants and software companies hoping to cash in on compliance assessments and new computer systems, "software is not going to make you HIPAA-compliant," said Richard Noffsinger, worldwide healthcare marketing manager for Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.
In terms of budget projections, 34% of HIMSS survey respondents said their IT budget will definitely increase this year, compared with 30% in 2000.