Optimism reigns at HIMSS10, but with a healthy dose of reality

It usually takes me a couple of days to figure out the theme of the annual HIMSS conference. Not so the last two years.

In 2009, HIMSS took place six weeks after the signing of the landmark American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The health IT sector was energized, but also subdued, as corporate austerity was in vogue in the wake of the Wall Street disaster and the public-relations fallout from companies such as American International Group and Bank of America sending executives on pricey junkets after receiving billions in federal bailout money. The late-season snowstorm in Chicago didn't help the mood.

ARRA still dominated at HIMSS10, which is wrapping up today in Atlanta--where it actually snowed Wednesday morning. This time, though, the focus was not on celebrating and interpreting the legislation, but on the two words that will rule the EMR sector for years to come: meaningful use. But you didn't have to be here to figure that out.

Some of the old glitz and breathless hype was back. One vendor booth had an actual DeLorean, tricked out with flux capacitor, à la "Back to the Future." At least it was meant to bring awareness to Parkinson's disease and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. But there were plenty of other games, contests, and, yes, scantily clad females to draw traffic to the floor and perhaps distract attention from underperforming products. Which is why I spent as little time as possible down in that zoo.

Optimism reigned elsewhere at HIMSS, but at least it was tempered with a healthy dose of reality. Achieving meaningful use is not going to be easy, but it seems as if hospital CIOs believe they are on the right track. They have a long climb, and they know it. This was evident from coverage by non-healthcare reporters, who, among other things, still don't know what a PHR is.

It's also becoming evident to me that there's a huge public education program needed. This week, in following a Facebook thread on EMRs on the page of a fellow reporter, I saw a couple of comments asking what EMR stood for. And I saw this comment: "I don't want ANYTHING I say to my doctor on a searchable database. I know it could theoretically save my life, but that's how much I distrust insurers."

HIMSS is a grueling event, but it's a walk in the park compared to the long slog toward meaningful use. - Neil