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Get beyond the hype to cover health IT at conferences Date: 04/04/17


Neil Versel

By Neil Versel

Health information technology came into prominence in health care with the advent of the federal “meaningful use” program in 2011 that offered Medicare and Medicaid incentives for adopting and meaningfully using electronic health records. Health IT is not a new field, however. The earliest electronic health records (EHRs) date from the early 1960s in academic medicine, with electronic billing systems and even telemedicine not far behind.

I have been covering health IT since 2001, a year after I got my first job as a health care journalist. One of the duties of the beat for a trade journalist is reporting on industry conferences because that’s where the networking opportunities are. There is no better way to cultivate sources than in person.

The discussion of health IT events usually begins with the big one: the annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference. HIMSS now draws upwards of 40,000 people and 1,200 vendors. The 2017 edition in Orlando, Florida in February — the 16th in a row I have covered — commanded 600,000 square feet of exhibit space. HIMSS18, set for March 5-9, 2018 in Las Vegas, should be similarly vast.

Guidelines for covering conferences

I have two rules for any HIMSS attendee should follow, be they journalists or not: wear comfortable shoes and allow 30 minutes between meetings if they are in different locations. It can take 20 minutes to walk from one end of exhibit hall to the other, depending on the venue, longer if people see your press badge and think they are entitled chat you up and beg for coverage.

Indeed, it is impossible to accommodate every meeting request, given that there are so many vendors, not to mention upwards of 300 educational sessions, keynotes and adjunct conferences. On the matter of adjunct events, I recommend arriving a day before the official opening to check out some of the many preconference symposia and single-day specialty summits.

If you have a chance to interview a government official or an executive from a major health system or insurance company, by all means, take it. It may be your only opportunity all year. The same goes for leaders of multinational corporations, who may only come to the United States a few times a year. That is why I made time for a Philips Healthcare breakfast at HIMSS17, even though I am rarely lucid at 7 a.m.

First-timers, or those interested in all the product announcements, might want to add themselves to the HIMSS media list presented to each paying vendor – but be prepared for a flood of emails starting promptly on Jan. 2. Then be prepared for at least one follow-up message from every PR person as the calendar turns to February. This year, I was getting meeting requests the morning HIMSS started. My standard response to the most persistent pitchers: “There are 1,200 of you. There is one of me.”

Avoiding distractions and buzzwords

The way to avoid much of this distraction is to opt out of the media list, though it won't completely stanch the flood of messages, and you do risk missing out on some important announcements. But it is impossible for one person or even a small team of reporters to cover the whole thing so you have to choose your battles wisely. Know what you want to accomplish, what kinds of people you want to interact with and what types of stories you hope to gather during the madness that has as its Twitter hashtag: #HIMSSanity (sometimes written as #HIMSSsanity, with an extra S).

As to the announcements: For the love of all that is holy, publicists and marketing people need to stop saying "solution" to describe a product or service. Tell me what your offering does so I can sort through the noise.

For my money, product announcements — particularly incremental releases — can be covered remotely, possibly with someone back at the office compiling a list into a single story or post. Or they can be ignored. Give me a good case study about a hospital or physician practice applying technology to address a particular problem. Trends are great, too, but beware the unproven hype.

HIMSS pales in size to the Radiological Society of North America annual meeting — always in Chicago right after Thanksgiving — and the Medica World Forum for Medicine in Europe each fall. Both events have significant health IT components, so the same strategies apply.

Smaller meetings sometimes garner better results

The mega-meetings are essential, but I always enjoy smaller conferences that take place throughout the year. I get a lot of bang for my travel buck at events that bring together hospital chief information officers and chief medical information officers, as well as those discussing innovation in what has become known as digital health.

But beware the hype at any conference that features scads of entrepreneurs, particularly those breathing the rarefied Silicon Valley air. I've been waiting for the "revolutionary" breakthroughs and "game-changing" technology their ilk have been promising since Y2K was an issue. Remember, choose your one-on-one meetings wisely and always ask the right questions.

Neil Versel is a veteran health IT and health care reporter based in Chicago.