Even as HIMSS cancels major conference over coronavirus, other healthcare conferences plow ahead

Even as attendees scramble to change travel plans after the largest health IT conference in the country was scrapped over coronavirus concerns, other upcoming healthcare conferences scheduled in the coming weeks are moving forward as planned.

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society decided Thursday to cancel its influential global conference set to start next week in Orlando due to the virus. The call came after multiple high-profile companies began to pull their participation from the event.

Other healthcare conferences scheduled to start in the next few weeks are going to continue as planned but will make some preparations and changes to address attendee safety.

Among the most notable, South by Southwest’s 2020 conference—which includes a health and medical technology track—has resisted calls to cancel and is set to begin March 13.

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Conference organizers said Monday that they are working with local, state and federal agencies on whether to move forward with the conference. “At this time, no health departments have requested the cancellation of any gatherings as the current risk of person-to-person spread in their jurisdictions remains low,” the conference posted on its website.

South by Southwest—which also has events on comedy, music and film and draws tens of thousands of people to Austin—did not return a request as of press time for an update on its status.

Other conferences plan to go on

The America College of Cardiology and World Heart Federation's World Congress of Cardiology is also still expected to take place March 28-30 in Chicago. Between 18,000 and 19,000 cardiologists from across the world are expected to attend.

The association said this week it is collaborating with the McCormick Place Convention Center, where the congress will take place, and other stakeholders to create an “onsite readiness and reaction plan."

"Expect increased hand sanitizer stations, attendee educational materials on ways to minimize risk and more,” they said.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons also still plans to hold its annual meeting March 24-28 in Orlando. The association will post more hand sanitizer locations throughout the event and encourage attendees not to shake hands to minimize transmission of disease. 

The American College of Healthcare Executives plans to continue with its Congress on Healthcare Leadership March 23-26 in Chicago. The congress will feature speeches with leaders of major trade organizations such as the American Hospital Association and America's Health Insurance Plans.

The college said it is actively monitoring the situation with the coronavirus. 

Some smaller conferences are also looking to move forward as planned, albeit with a heightened state of readiness.

The Society for Adolescent Medicine's annual meeting, scheduled to start March 11, is expected to move forward in San Diego as planned. But, in a statement on the society's website, the organization said it would cancel the meeting and provide full refunds of registration fees if a health emergency were declared in the Southern California region.

The World Health Care Congress, which will take place in Washington at the end of March and have between 1,200 to 1,500 attendees, told FierceHealthcare before news of HIMSS’ cancellation broke that it would move forward as planned.

“We will continue to track daily what is going on with the coronavirus,” said Bridget Kelly, vice president of marketing and client engagement for the event. She said the congress has been working with the hotel venue to provide extra sanitizing stations and routinely wipe down surfaces.

There are some conferences that have decided to cancel or postpone. The American Bar Association canceled its 21st Annual Conference on Emerging Issues in Healthcare Law, which was planned to begin in San Diego on March 11.

The Patient Safety Movement decided to postpone its 2020 World Patient Safety, Science and Technology Summit which had been planned to start in Huntington Beach, California on March 6. 

"We all believe in, 'First, do no harm.' In light of the unknowns and knowns about the Coronavirus, we feel that we have no choice but to ensure that we, the Patient Safety Movement Foundation, 'First, do no harm,'" the group said in a statement.

HIMSS' decision

HIMSS’ decision to cancel an event that features more than 30,000 healthcare professionals came three days after the association said President Donald Trump would be the first sitting president to deliver an address. The association said Thursday the decision to cancel was based on rolling updates on the state of the virus.

“That virus is changing hourly and we couldn’t get an accurate assessment of the risk,” said HIMSS Communications Director Karen Groppe. “If you don’t know the risk, don’t go in there.”

She added that the unique contours of a conference of healthcare professionals also played a role.

“We’ve got the unique medical profile of our attendees, the consequences of displacing healthcare workers, and putting stress on the Orlando Health system,” she said.

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As of Thursday, there have been 99 cases of coronavirus across 13 states, and 10 people in the U.S. have died, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Florida has four confirmed cases of the virus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Groppe denied that the decision to cancel was based on any outside criticism or sponsors pulling out. Major sponsors such as Google and Microsoft decided to not attend as well as more than two dozen companies out of roughly 1,000 exhibitors.

On Wednesday, a petition emerged on change.org calling for the cancellation of HIMSS. It had 433 signatures as of press time.

“It absolutely makes no sense to bring 50k global healthcare attendees to a venue during an outbreak that is likely a pandemic,” the petition’s sponsor, Lateehs Pablo, wrote. “Mind you, these folks will then go back to work in hospitals.”

FierceHealthcare Executive Editor Tina Reed contributed to this story