Editor's Corner

Welcome to the first day of our HiMSS '07 coverage!  Over the next few days, we'll be bringing you updates on the technology, personalities and events here at the Morial Convention Center in downtown New Orleans, and try to offer some perspective on how they'll affect you.

Today, the show started off with a keynote address by Steve Ballmer, the peripatetic CEO of Microsoft. Ballmer, whose presentation was thronged by eager attendees, stuck mostly to the standard script for health IT industry gatherings, with the usual talk about clinical data integration, improved efficiencies and consumer-driven control of health data. But one thing he said did stand out: that Microsoft officially has the healthcare market in its sights.

"We have traditionally focused on all vertical industries, but this industry is too important not to have a dedicated focus," Ballmer told the crowd, which filled one large auditorium to bursting and packed an overflow room as well. "We're building distinct capabilities and products, because there's so much opportunity in healthcare to change the way people work and live. We so enthused about this that it's unbelievable."

Explosion of information

In his talk, Ballmer spoke about the explosion of data clinicians and consumers must digest, and the pressures that this puts on healthcare systems.

Right now, he noted, most healthcare organizations figure out how to manage clinical data on their own, creating costly islands of information that don't link up with other institutions. In the future, Ballmer said, the problem will only get worse, as healthcare organizations integrate clinical research, genetic data, digital imaging and other digital resources into their work. "The notion that each hospital, health plan and provider will be able to fund its own R&D is not going to last," Ballmer says.

At the same time, healthcare organizations must also address the needs of an increasingly wired consumer, and help that consumer manage their own care online, he said. "The people we serve expect to have a rich interaction with technology," Ballmer noted. "The consumerization of information technology we see elsewhere will also apply in healthcare."

The software solution

Not surprisingly, Ballmer said that the solution to these problems is new and better software which can simplify access to this vast pool of information. The hardware which can get this done already exists, but the industry still hasn't created the software solution which can link it all together, Ballmer said.

"Healthcare is the largest industry in the world, but we don't see the same standardization in this industry that we do in other industries. That's because we're not meeting providers' needs," he said. While the industry doesn't have a comprehensive solution yet, service-oriented architectures and XML are going to going to be "very, very important" ways to link up existing data, he said. (Of course, he didn't mention that he's assuming all of this will be hooked up using Microsoft development tools, but that's hardly a stretch.)

Being the CEO of a company with a giant consumer presence, Ballmer couldn't resist giving a pitch for the future of consumer healthcare as well. He spoke glowingly of a coming "smart home" in which consumers get care alerts and access health information not only from their PC, but from their interactive television, smart watch, video game system and other devices. "We see the home as a healthcare environment," he said.

All in all, Ballmer's talk didn't break a lot of new ground on the clinical side, but expect to hear a lot more from Microsoft on this subject in coming months. In the mean time, I wouldn't be surprised if you see the company introduce some pretty interesting technology for the "healthcare environment" in the home.

If I read Ballmer's presentation right, be on the lookout for PCs and multimedia devices for the home to have new healthcare-oriented features. I'd also bet that that Microsoft and partners will introduce one or more slickly-designed, iPod-esque devices for consumers that automate remote clinical data capture, funnel videos and imaging data to providers, connect to WiFi networks and more. On the provider side of the industry, look for Microsoft to take an aggressive position in clinical data analytics, but interestingly, perhaps even more on the research side of the industry.

All told, Ballmer's talk focused more on vision and less on specifics. Still, over the next couple of years, it looks to me like the healthcare world should be more interesting with Microsoft in it. - Anne