Where the World Connects for Health – Reflections on HIMSS 2018

Where the World Connects for Health – Reflections on HIMSS 2018

March 14, 2018

The theme for the annual HIMSS conference and exhibition this year, “Where the World Connects for Health,” could not have been more fitting. With over 45,000 professionals in attendance and over 300 distinct education sessions, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference brings healthcare information technology (IT) stakeholders from across the world together to learn from one another, educate, collaborate, and network. Attendees had the opportunity to engage on nearly any topic related, directly or indirectly, to health IT, from cybersecurity to electronic health records (EHRs) to artificial intelligence to predictive analytics to telemedicine, and more – the list literally does go on.

I had the opportunity to attend to participate in sessions related to the role of health IT in disaster preparedness and response. Going into the conference, I (perhaps rather naïvely) assumed these sessions would focus primarily on the importance of interoperability. (Because if interoperability is important in healthcare during normal operations, and important in emergency management and disaster responses, how could it not be the most important topic for sessions on health IT during and for emergencies?) While interoperability was indeed an important topic, it truly was just one of many. Experts and panelists representing a diverse array of organizations who do not focus primarily, or in many cases even secondarily, on disaster preparedness and response teed up important considerations in designing and implementing health IT that will be able to assist providers and patients in times of crises. These included:

  • Inclusive design – An important theme that emerged in discussion of the role health IT plays in providing for underserved communities is making a concerted effort to ensure the technology and platforms are accessible and usable by patients, in a way that makes sense to them. This can be overlooked, or even outranked, by a desire for a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
  • Role of telehealth – With many panelists observing it is ‘the year of telehealth,’ a common theme in and beyond disaster preparedness and response sessions was the importance and promise of telemedicine in making care accessible remotely. Panelists from Texas remarked that while telehealth, particularly behavioral health services provided through telemedicine technologies, was useful during the response and recovery to Hurricane Harvey, challenges in this space exist and must be addressed in telehealth policy and legislation. Having done research on the potential telehealth holds for disaster preparedness and response before last year’s hurricane season for our Resilient and Ready report, I’m eager to see how these conversations about the field translate into policy following the events of last year.
  • Interoperability – Interoperability was still one of the most important and common topics. I thought it was particularly valuable to have disaster preparedness and response stakeholders including those from HHS/ASPR, Puerto Rico and the USVI, along with me, participate in this conference and join in the conversations with IT designers and vendors to emphasize why interoperability in the context of emergencies is important, and likely different from their typical understanding of the term. In the context of emergencies, interoperability is essential not just so technology systems within a hospital system can talk to one another, but for bigger reasons, as well. For example, interoperability can ensure providers outside a disaster zone can access data and records needed to support patients. One session highlighted the benefit interoperability can have in connecting health information exchanges (HIE) with California’s PULSE (Patient Unified Lookup System for Emergencies). PULSE connects HIEs across the state during an emergency allowing first responders and providers to query the system and have access to patient data they otherwise would not.

The time change from Las Vegas, where the conference was held, back to D.C. notwithstanding, I left the HIMSS conference feeling invigorated and encouraged, and with a renewed sense of awe at the power and scope of technology. In emergency management, it can sometimes seem like advances in technology create as many problems as they solve, in that our dependency on them can compound challenges during a crisis. When our technology systems break or are no longer available during a crisis, things can take a sharper turn for the worse. We see this all the time in healthcare. But a worldwide gathering of the most innovative and forward-thinking health IT professionals reminded me just how much progress we are making every day. And having disaster preparedness and response stakeholders mingling with these minds, sharing concerns and ideas, is another step in the right direction for fostering resiliency not just in our structures but our IT systems, as well.

Sarah Baker, MPP

Sarah Baker is the Programs Manager at Healthcare Ready. In this capacity, she leads the policy development, research, and programmatic efforts to the organization's preparedness initiatives. Prior to joining Healthcare Ready, Sarah served as a consultant to the Department of Homeland Security and a variety of private sector organizations, during which time she supported the design, conduct, and evaluation of scores of preparedness exercises. Sarah received her Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy and holds a B.A. degree from the University of Notre Dame.