Warm Orlando, Fla., was the setting for my first Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference. It was the 50th anniversary, promising to be the largest and greatest HIMSS event ever. This conference is so large that only five venues in the U.S. can host the event. Banners around the convention center read, "Advancing healthcare through information technology … Linking People, Potential and Progress," seemingly indicating a glimpse of the future of healthcare inside. As a practicing surgeon new to this conference, I was eager to learn, consult and collaborate with like-minded individuals.
Pondering health IT's future post-HIMSS11
Nearly 31,000 attendees entered the Orlando Convention Center at 8 a.m. on Monday. Tens of thousands scrambled to and from lectures and focus groups. My first educational lecture was focused on the power of IT in healthcare and collaborative teamwork. I walked out feeling encouraged about the future and our ability to use IT to advance healthcare. Suddenly, I found myself amidst a swarm of attendees coalescing into rivers of people flowing toward the guarded doors of the main exhibition hall—vendors.
Upon entry, I was awestruck by the size and magnitude of the space. The exhibition hall is over 2 million square feet, greater than 46 acres. More than 1,000 companies gathered in this grand hall, promising to demonstrate the future of healthcare IT.
I began my journey and walked toward the Microsoft booth when suddenly a tall, young, attractive female from another vendor intercepted me. Her task was to attract attendees like myself to her vendor's booth and scan our name tags. When I inquired about the product, she smiled and said in an Australian accent, "Sorry, I don't know anything about the product." With a smile, I moved on toward Microsoft. Once again, another attractive female tried to divert me to her booth. I stopped and looked around. Scattered throughout the immensity were armies of attractive young women, hovering around their booths, deployed by companies to capture the attention of attendees. With a quick smile, flirt and a scan, they ran off to the next target. What IT products were they selling besides the obvious? I did not know and frankly I did not care to find out.
Standing there I reflected on a recent trip to People's Square in Shanghai. Streets were illuminated with big, bright flashing lights and revolving signs, crowds of people moving about, store owners staring at me eager to catch my attention. The irony is that at 6 feet 3 inches tall and 250 lbs., a man of my stature could not find anything that they were selling that would fit, yet they still tried to sell. I was clearly a foreigner then, walking through the streets of Shanghai, and I felt like a bit of a foreigner now, standing in the exhibition hall in Orlando.
It became clearly apparent that my goal of seeing the future of healthcare IT in Orlando was going to be difficult to meet. Many companies had decided to bury their products and visions under a materialistic production called a "show."
Healthcare delivery systems are broken globally and there is an urgency to fix it. There are 100,000 preventable deaths annually in the U.S. alone. According to the World Health Organization, 20% to 40% of health resources are being wasted annually while simultaneously, 250 million people are pushed below the poverty line because of payments made for healthcare. In a world with nearly 1.2 billion people in extreme poverty (less than $1 dollar per day) shouldn't we be more focused and unified in our vision, from all healthcare sectors, to coordinate our actions and serve humanity? So why do we spend money on cheap gimmicks and exploit young women as bait around booths with scanners? Don't get me wrong—I did appreciate those booths whose companies spent money on soft, cushioned carpets to greet my tired feet, or jars of candy to replenish me after hours of walking. But do we really need a full gaming arcade or a full-sized candy store? Is it necessary to give out hundreds of free iPads or Vespa scooters and Xbox 360 games? Should we not have some moderation in what we spend as an industry, when millions are suffering because they lack access to healthcare? When I think of the clinics I work with and the lack of money they have to spend on healthcare, I have to ask myself if spending millions on making a booth into a makeshift baseball bar with loud music and free beer is an essential part of improving healthcare.
Hidden amid the chaos were many honest and simple booths, from small entrepreneurial companies and government organizations to larger firms such as IBM and Microsoft. They stood out because of their relatively moderate booth environments and their unique ability to demonstrate their products with the help of knowledgeable sales and engineering teams.
The truth is that I am confident these vendors have the potential to and eventually will lead the world in advancing healthcare. There is no other economy and government in this world that has our capacity to steward forward healthcare. So I wondered, why do we have such polar differences among vendors today, forcing some to use gimmicks to gather attendees like pigeons around an old man with breadcrumbs? Is it the amount of money they can budget, or is it a lack of confidence that their products can truly advance healthcare? Some vendors are benefiting from our fragmented healthcare system and are producing proprietary software solutions that complicate the issues. To those companies who set their companies gains over contributing to the advancement of healthcare, a short life cycle is in play.
The cry for IT to transform healthcare screams from providers, from the poor and the sick, from researchers and government agencies. The responsibility to develop the solutions needed to create a seamless digital environment in which exchange of healthcare data can be used for research, patient care and coordination falls on the shoulders of today's vendors. The time is now. The U.S. government has made historic attempts at funding healthcare IT initiatives in the hope of catalyzing the launch of this seamless digital environment. This is not sustainable. What must occur is an internal change in posture by vendors so they unite with a clear vision of their role and begin to consult to create new solutions. They have the capacity and will eventually solve the challenges. This will occur through innovation not only in IT but also in business models, where global access to IT tools that empower governments, providers and industry to advance healthcare do not compromise profitability and vendor growth. The responsibility is great, and it needs to become the dominant focus animating their actions.
But with all great visions come risks and fears. Vendors that are not aligned with this vision and don't understand the urgent need and responsibility of technology to contribute to the betterment of mankind will be left behind. Those that worry they will lose their customers if healthcare data becomes openly exchangeable, becoming a patient's right and not a vendor's product, will soon struggle. Imagine a day when healthcare providers could switch products overnight without having to worry about the data-compatibility issues, implementation costs and IT challenges that we have today. This reality would be frightening to vendors who are not prepared to be flexible and innovative in an open market with competition. New business models must be created around value-added software and not based on barriers companies create to stifle free exchange of patient data.
Clearly, the challenges of healthcare we face in the U.S. and globally will not be solved solely through better access and use of information technology. We know IT has the potential to unlock knowledge from data we currently have and can led to better decision-making, research and development, and coordination of care. Greater than this achievement would be the example to the world that the IT sector can demonstrate: Corporations can be responsible and contribute to the betterment of humanity while creating a financially profitable environment. This is attainable only through a unified vision and consultation, driving innovation.
I hope 2012 will be the year the HIMSS banners read, "Linking Vision, Purpose and Innovation," and I look forward to focusing on a unified vision that is inspired by our common purpose, enabling innovations to advance healthcare globally. I, for one, am dedicated to seeing this through.
Dr. Salim Afshar Co-founder and director Global Medical Information Systems Foundation Boston
Co-founder and director
Global Medical Information Systems Foundation
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