Key Insights from HIMSS18

Piers Nash & Joe Marks
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The 2018 Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society global conference and exhibition (HIMSS18) was a whirlwind five days packed with thoughtful conversation about the future of healthcare technology. In no particular order, here are the themes that generated the most buzz this year.

Blockchain, Security, and AI Dominate
When it comes to healthcare, blockchain remains mostly in the prototyping stage, but there is clearly much excitement in the industry. Some of this may be carryover from the hype associated with the recent cryptocurrency surge, but some is genuine and likely driven, in part, by cybersecurity fears.

It is worth noting that privacy, security, and cybersecurity moved up a spot to claim the second highest priority for healthcare IT leaders, according to the HIMSS Leadership Survey. However, there did not appear to be any particular set of standard platforms or best practices that can offer protection — many solutions are ad-hoc and hard to evaluate.

While traditional technology is lagging behind the threat, some models showed promise. Blockchain efforts demonstrated by members of the Hyperledger community showed real progress towards more general utility for both data security and smart contracts, and inventive systems are being tested for contracts, sharing patient information, and supply chain management.

AI featured prominently in everything from EHRs promising machine learning for personalized medicine to startups offering machine learning as a service. This year, the substantial IBM presence was entirely focused around a large Watson booth featuring dozens of pedestal demonstrations and two theaters running a nonstop series of talks, most of which involved use of Watson Cognitive Computing.

The buzz on AI/cognitive meant that some pedestrian correlation/regression is now rebranded as AI. But neural networks and feature-identification machine learning tools showed genuine traction across a variety of platforms. However, it remained clear that data standardization issues and difficulties assembling large sets of quality data remain major barriers to AI-enhanced healthcare efforts.

Big Tech Looks to Disrupt Healthcare
Amazon and Apple didn’t wait for HIMSS, but their announced forays into healthcare had everyone talking at the conference. Uber took the opportunity to announce its Uber Health patient transport scheme, in beta with over 100 providers, while competitor Lyft announced its partnership with AllScripts to roll out ride-sharing for non-emergency medical transportation. Individually, these companies may not turn healthcare on its head, but the collective announcements by major non-health technology companies are waking health industry stalwarts to the fact that if they don’t innovate, someone else will. In addition, there seemed to be myriad small companies offering products competing with the Epic and Cerner platforms, raising questions of startup competition in the EHR space.

Telehealth appeared to be going mainstream, with every health system displaying different stages of deployment (and the various clouds figuring prominently for most providers and most use cases). Emerging virtual reality technology was also represented with practical use cases such as improving clinical training and patient rehabilitation. Demonstrating cognizance of technology’s increasing role in advancing healthcare, AMA CEO Dr. James Madera noted that innovation is key in meeting modern healthcare challenges and pointed to Health2047 Inc., Akiri Inc., and the Physician Innovation Network as examples of the AMA’s innovation efforts.

Interoperability Liftoff
After years of complaints that electronic systems don’t talk to one another and that this is hampering patient care, interoperability got a big lift this year in the form of a government push.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma announced several new initiatives for interoperability. The packed main ballroom broke into spontaneous applause when Ms. Verma spoke about the need to overhaul of meaningful-use requirements with the aim of letting data flow freely. She also called on insurers to “give patients their claims data electronically” and launched a new CMS initiative, MyHealthEData, to quickly deliver complete healthcare information to patients electronically. While it remains unclear how quickly these changes will be enacted, having CMS as a stated convener for interoperability and open APIs should accelerate the adoption of common standards.

Interoperability had other proponents as well. Google introduced its Cloud Healthcare API, which aims to make it easier for health organizations to collect, store, and access health data. HIMSS featured an Interoperability Showcase area with a number of demonstration projects, and most major EHR systems displayed some focus on interoperability. An emerging cadre of smaller players operating at the friction point between various systems was also out in force, for example, PilotFish showed off a configurable data integration platform.

All told, this year’s HIMSS event provided much to contemplate, and it was encouraging to see such visibility from tech giants like IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google. They obviously intend to continue making digital health a business priority, which bodes well for the health tech ecosystem as a whole.

— Piers Nash is CEO at Sympatic and Joe Marks is an Advisor at Health2047.

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