Conference Anticipation

April 10, 2013
H. Stephen Lieber, President and CEO of HIMSS, shares with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland his perspectives on the ongoing evolution of the HIMSS Conference, and offers previews of some new attractions at this year's conference in Las Vegas

H. Stephen Lieber, the president and CEO of the Chicago-based Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), annually finds himself in a position of both influence and frenetic activity, as he leads his organization’s troops forward to prepare for the HIMSS Conference, a convention that enjoys an unrivalled position of dominance in the healthcare information technology sector. This year, HIMSS12, as it’s officially called, will be held Feb. 20-24 at the Venetian Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas.

And though for a few years, a few years back, some industry observers wondered aloud whether a slight softness in attendance and the absence of a few very high-profile vendors might signal a diminution in the importance of the annual HIMSS Conference, in the past couple of years, with the meaningful use process and healthcare reform pushing patient care organizations forward into significant change as never before, doubts over the conference’s centrality in the healthcare IT industry’s calendar year.

Indeed, as Lieber, who is leading his thirteenth HIMSS Conference, says, all indications are that attendance at this year’s HIMSS Conference could be more robust than ever. Lieber spoke recently with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland regarding innovations at this year’s conference, and his perceptions of the evolution of the conference overall. Below are excerpts from that interview.

What kind of attendance are you expecting this year for Las Vegas?

We had about 31,000 people last year in Orlando, and this year, we’re running about 15 percent over the registration figures we were seeing at the same time last year. So I won’t be surprised if we end up in the 12-15 percent range above last year; all indications demonstrate that we’re moving in that direction.

H. Stephen Lieber

How about with regard to exhibitor participation?

On the exhibition floor, we’ve basically sold out all the space we have. Last year, we had 1,032 companies, and right now, we have 1,038.

And you don’t have room for anybody else?

That’s right. We’re now working on what we call kiosks; and those are basically smaller companies contacting us anyway; but it’s a place where they can set up a display for their products and services. It’s basically the same number as last year, but the exhibition space is about 8 percent larger than what we had in Orlando last year.

What would you like our readers to know about in terms of innovations at this year’s conference?

There are actually two things I’d like to highlight. One of the new things we’re doing this year is offering what we’re calling knowledge centers, and we’ve got six of these on the show floor. They’re designed to bring together in one place multiple experiences. We will offer HIMSS-generated education that we’ve created, in the knowledge centers; we also have exhibitor case study presentations available. The knowledge centers will be on the show floor.

How many will there be?

There will be six of them. The subjects are: accountable care organizations, mobile health, medical device integration, clinical and business analytics, cloud computing, and ICD-10. So around those six, the idea is to bring together independent content, vendor content, networking areas, exhibitions, and other HIMSS resources, as well as some knowledge experts who will be assigned to the centers at various times from both the vendor community and the HIMSS membership. The idea is behind the knowledge centers is that you could go there and learn some things. We’ve had a previous version of this with knowledge areas that were created by vendors, but this is more ambitious. We’re creating natural gathering areas for people to talk together and learn. So that networking, which has always been a critical part of HIMSS, will now be enhanced in this way.

Was this a staff-generated idea?

Yes, it was a staff-generated idea based on input we had gotten from members and vendors. And we’re always trying to get people together; we’ve got the social networking thing going on, and such, so I think it’s sort of a natural evolution of our conference—the challenge is, how do we take a big venue and make it a whole lot smaller? Our job is to create areas or venues where people can come together, and basically reduce a 35,000-person conference down to a few hundred.

How are you making sure that these areas won’t be perceived simply as extensions of booths?

In some ways, they are extensions of vendor booths, because they will include space for companies to bring their information in, but the will also include space for others to bring information in. And the context is meant to be a mixture of things, so that people can read a white paper or see a poster presentation of sorts, and then walk over to a vendor and ask them how their work matches that.

The second thing I’d like to mention is that we are going to be streaming some types of content during the conference, live. We’ve got keynote sessions plus 12 more educational sessions involved, so it’ll be about 14-15 hours of content over multiple days. And we’ve recognized this for years, that especially in the hospital or medical group setting, not everybody can go; somebody’s got to stay back and take care of the patients. There will be a cost for it.

The real challenge of something like this is that we don’t want to create an environment where people will say, ‘Oh, I don’t need to go to the conference.’ And with 15 hours of content, you don’t create that. Also, you won’t have the networking opportunities when you stay home. But the primary objective of this is to extend a well-recognized event to people who have to stay behind because of their work.

What stands out for you with regard to the evolution of the conference, in terms of challenges and successes?

I think probably the biggest change in the past 12 or 13 years has been the quality of the education; and I think we’re starting to truly establish among our members that it’s as much about the education as about the exhibition hall. The exhibition hall has always been enormous and dominating, and I think throughout the 1990s that the exhibit floor was perceived as the dominant feature. Not to the detriment of the exhibition hall; we think that’s very important, and we still have a basic philosophy that you have to bring the IT and clinician leaders and vendors together. But our first job in terms of making change within the organization was to drive the education value of the conference.

Second, the audiences today are much more diverse than they were 12-13 years ago. Back then, it was much more the technology people, and back then, the telecommunications people were a big part of it. Back then, it really was about the technology. Now, it’s more about what the technology can do—so our audience has evolved tremendously in terms of the non-IT executives and of clinicians coming to the conference.

What has been the biggest challenge over the past several years?

The biggest challenge really has been the venue. Because we live this every day, we really are aware of the audiences we serve; and we have so much we want to cover that you just can’t cover it to the depth you want it to. We get 800-900 proposals for the conference, and can only accept 125-150 of them; we have 240 sessions, but some aren’t proposal-based. So coming up with and covering the [conceptual] territory is a challenge, but that’s what we do, and we enjoying doing it, and quite honestly, it’s a fun challenge to tackle.

It seems as though the pre-conference symposia have been maturing.

I think that’s right on target. And in terms of how the conference has evolved, that’s another example of the change in the conference; the Sunday symposia, which will be on Monday this year, have really evolved forward, and you can go much deeper on the issues. It’s a relatively smaller group, but big enough that it’s really basically the first day of the conference; but it has become a very big component of our educational matrix. The reason we shifted it was because Las Vegas didn’t want us coming in on Saturday for Sunday sessions, and they didn’t want our crowds coming in on Saturday.

So you’ll switch back next year?

Oh, we will, because we have a number of physicians who go to the pre-conference symposia on Sunday and leave on Monday.

Do you foresee any big changes over the next few years?

What I’m going to anticipate is that there are a couple of topics that I think are going to change some of what we do, and maybe even some of how we do it. The trend towards mobile devices and applications in the delivery of healthcare will change our venue as well; so I would imagine in the next few years, we’ll be putting more content on mobile devices, as well as covering mobile devices. The second thing is that we see early stages of hospitals and medical groups doing more data analysis; and that will likely change what we do in terms of recognizing the role of clinical analytics, and how you present that will probably be different than, say, the way you present on installing a new barcode system, for example. It’s a subject that I think will require much more interactive discussion, so, you’ll see a move towards more of an engagement format in that area than a lecture format.

HIMSS12 will take place in Las Vegas, at the Venetian Sands Expo Center. Don’t miss Healthcare Informatics’ Innovator Awards reception, to be held Tuesday, Feb. 21 at Yellowtail in the Bellagio Hotel. Just click here to RSVP.

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