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Reflections on HIMSS17: policy, connectivity, patient engagement, and beyond

By Pamela Nasr, PA healthcare expert

At the end of February, more than 42,000 healthcare IT professionals, clinicians, executives, and vendors came together at the Orlando Convention Center for the largest and most influential healthcare IT conference in the United States – HIMSS17. 

Being my first time at HIMSS, I was prepared by my colleagues to cover substantial ground – both in distance and “hot topics.” So in my most comfortable dress shoes, I endeavored to make the most of the conference’s mantra “where the brightest minds in health and IT meet”. From wearables and artificial intelligence to big data and cloud services, there was no shortage of innovative technologies and health IT platforms discussed at the conference. 

Now that I have had a few days to reflect on this experience, here are my main takeaways from HIMSS17:

Despite uncertainty on the policy front, global healthcare trends are more likely to persist

With uncertainty looming over Capitol Hill, the policy arena was relatively quiet compared to previous years though the sessions closely echoed the current healthcare debate in Washington. With ongoing change in White House leadership and vacant positions yet to be confirmed (at least at the time of the conference), it came as no surprise that the policy front was more informational than groundbreaking. 

  • The Future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)
    Two former CMS administrators contended that there is no easy or clear path to repealing and replacing the ACA; the process is rather step-wise and requires incremental thinking. They both called for collaboration and stressed the need for a bipartisan agreement as the country cannot endure another legislation owned by one party while being fought by the other. Another skeptic of an ACA repeal is former House Speaker John Boehner, who stated that in in his 25 years in Congress Republicans never agreed on a healthcare proposal. While all falls under political predictions, one thing is for certain: policymakers should focus on improving population health, increasing patient outcomes, and reducing costs.
  • The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA)
    MACRA was front and center as the first reporting period in the transition year of 2017 has just kicked off. Most MACRA-related sessions took an informative approach, reiterating the final rule for the Quality Payment Program (QPP) of MACRA released by CMS back in October.  Interestingly, many medical groups do not seem to know where to start when it comes to MACRA, indicating that this is not only about technology, but also the education that goes with it.
  • The Future of Value-Based Care
    Value-based care reforms are here to stay irrespective of the political environment. While most of payment initiatives have been on the provider side, the underlying principles can be applied to payers as well, driven by work through Medicare Advantage Plans and state-based efforts.

Providers and patients need to be further engaged in technology development

And it is on the private sector to do so. Providers are frustrated with current health IT platforms and the lack of interoperability; products have failed to address the issues that matter to providers and patients alike. While the industry has succeeded in generating data, questions on how to unlock, use, and make data interoperable remain. Moving forward, technology leaders should focus on reducing the burden of health IT on providers and achieving widespread interoperability of HIT systems. The latter, in turn, will empower patients with access to the same data as their providers, thus improving care and resulting in an “activated” patient – one who is part of the decision-making process. 

Blockchain is the latest health IT buzzword

Blockchain - a peer-to-peer network protocol that can record and store secure data in an open, distributed ledger - received a lot of hype at HIMSS this year. From established companies creating one-stop “patient wallets” that store patient records to start-ups developing healthcare use cases for this foundational technology, health IT leaders are betting on blockchain’s potential to transform population health management, medical records, and patient-generated health data. However, with the hype comes an equal amount of skepticism associated with interoperability, security, “trust in the chain”, and stakeholder buy-in. While implementation and mass adoption are far down the line, this is a good time to invest in focused experiments, tool vendors, and development standards for blockchain applications. 

Cloud infrastructure is gaining traction

The Cloud is firmly in the mainstream now that healthcare has observed the benefits early adopters within and outside the industry have gained from using the Cloud. Accordingly, adoption is likely to grow further for IaaS (infrastructure as a service) and PaaS (platform as a service) based on prior successes in SaaS (software as a service). Core applications such as EMR and core-claims are being increasingly hosted and managed in Cloud-based models that deal more effectively with scalability, availability, and resiliency issues.

Healthcare leaders are recognizing the need for effective consumer engagement

Whether in establishing universal models for population health management or enabling provider-payer collaboration, healthcare leaders are recognizing that consumerism is key, and patients must be part of the conversation. Unlike previous years at HIMSS, consumer engagement and patient outreach were central topics of discussion as the industry navigates the challenges of achieving health literacy, managing consumer preferences, and developing solutions that create value to patients.

While there was no single dominant theme at HIMSS, I left the conference feeling optimistic about the future. Here’s to hoping that the coming year will pave the way for a more consumer-centric healthcare system aimed at improving patient outcomes. Only time - and HIMSS18 in Vegas - will tell.

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