Health IT

Things I learned at HIMSS17

There’s only so much HIMSS conference a publication like MedCity News can cover, so it’s impossible to know everything that has gone on here in Orlando, but let’s give it our best shot.


Another Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference is almost in the books; the vendor show closed at 4 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday, but the programming runs through mid-afternoon Thursday. That’s fine, because there’s only so much HIMSSanity one can take.

And there’s only so much HIMSS conference a publication like MedCity News can cover, so it’s impossible to know everything that has gone on here in Orlando, Florida, this week. After all, more than 42,000 people had registered for HIMSS17 as of Wednesday morning, and there are something like 1,280 vendors here.

That means plenty has happened, not all of it newsworthy, and most of it is certainly not story-worthy, considering the small size of our staff.

But we can give you tidbits of news, which is helpful when a reporter’s brain is addled from four full days of HIMSSanity, including the preconference symposia on Sunday. (The HIMSSanity name comes from health IT industry veteran Larry Lin, who coined the term in 2012 when his sorta namesake Jeremy Lin was creating Linsanity on the basketball court.)

So here is some of what I learned at my 16th HIMSS conference:

IBM Watson Health has hit the top of the Gartner Hype Cycle. Just before the conference started, it came out that M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston had frozen its implementation of Watson after spending at least $62.1 million on a collaboration since 2012.

Yes, the split was at least partially due to a technicality: M.D. Anderson, which is part of the University of Texas system, didn’t properly follow Texas public contracting rules, according to a state audit. But there are other issues.

In an email sent Monday, an IBM spokeswoman said that news stories about the messy breakup “mischaracterized the purpose” of the Texas audit report and reflected more on “mismanagement” on the part of M.D. Anderson than any performance issues related to Watson.

It just so happened that IBM Chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty delivered the opening keynote at HIMSS17 Monday morning. She did not discuss M.D. Anderson, but she made of a point of addressing concerns, particularly from clinicians, that “augmented intelligence” like Watson threatens to replace highly trained healthcare professionals.

“We are here to augment what man does,” Rometty said. “This is not man vs. machine. This is man plus machine.”

She seemed somewhat defensive, and her words won’t do much to mollify groups like the American Medical Association, which usually is pretty defensive itself when it comes to protecting the authority of physicians.

Whatever the broader reaction to Rometty’s statement, it’s clear that the Watson hype has peaked and that we are headed toward the trough of disillusionment. Watson will sink or swim on its merits, not on buzz.

ICD, the International Classification of Diseases standard, originally stood for International Causes of Death. And it dates to 1893. Let’s just say that since the coding system doesn’t just track death anymore, that the current ICD-10 is far more complicated than the original list now referred to as ICD-1.

This tidbit comes courtesy of an artist at the Intelligent Medical Objects booth among the 600,000 square feet of exhibit space HIMSS has occupied at the Orange County Convention Center.


Thumb drives are still a thing in 2017. Two vendors gave me press kits on the same type of USB drive that people handed out by the dozen a decade ago, I would have had a third from someone who approached me at an evening reception, but I assured him I would be more likely to read his pitch if it came by email — preferably at least a couple weeks from now. At least nobody was handing out CD-ROMs this time.

HIStalkapalooza might be coming to an end. Yes, the unofficial “Health IT’s Night Out” party that usually has athenahealth’s Jonathan Bush doing something crazy like taking a pie to the face or offering an impression of Donald Trump, may have run its course. That was what the emcee said from the stage after the presentation of the annual, irreverent HISsie Awards.

On the other hand, Party On The Moon, the always-outstanding band has played HIStalkapalooza four years running, ended its fun set by saying they would see everyone next year in Las Vegas. So it’s probably a matter of the folks behind HIStalk getting enough sponsorship dollars to make the extravaganza happen.

At least this time, the Lifetime Achievement HISsie went to Cerner CEO Neal Patterson, who just returned from a year off while he was battling cancer. Patterson has long been a target of HIStalk’s snark, but cancer changes things.

Republicans and Democrats can still get along, occasionally. Two former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrators, Dr. Mark McClellan (Bush administration, 2004-06) and Andy Slavitt (Obama administration, 2015-17) participated in a well-attended discussion at HIMSS17 Monday. Both agreed that reports of the imminent death of the Affordable Care Act have been greatly exaggerated.

“It is going to be with us for a while and it’s going to be a step-wise process” of replacing or improving on President Barack Obama’s signature health law, said McClellan, who now directs the Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.

Both said that the debate over healthcare reform in this country is finally, mercifully, moving from ideology to real issues.

HIMSS CEO and President H. Stephen Lieber is retiring at the end of 2017 after nearly 18 years at the helm, so this is his last HIMSS conference as the face of the organization. It took that long for someone to make this connection.

Now that you mention it, Arkansas native Lieber does kind of look like Martin Short.

Photos: Twitter user Informatica Health, MedCity News