Medical Device Daily National Editor

CHICAGO — The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS; Chicago) is once again showing off, putting on one of the biggest, most entertaining and buzzworthy medical conferences, in matching it with even bigger expectations than usual for one of the few sectors for U.S. industry still standing, and standing very tall, amid the downturn.

While most other industries are having difficulties attracting attendees to their conferences — or even speakers, given shrinking travel budgets — HIMSS obviously was having no such difficulties, enticing nearly 27,000 healthcare geeks (a term we use here as an undiluted positive) and 900 exhibitors in 30 product categories to the Windy City and lakeside sprawl known as McCormick Place.

(Note: For most conferences Medical Device Daily usually gets a dozen or so e-mail invitations for booth tours and other activities, but for HIMSS 2009 we received 300-plus, the pitches/invites gathering in our "in" box as early as January).

No head-scratching is needed to figure out the attraction money talks. What it is talking about, in particular:

A $19 billion plus infusion to HIT of promised stimulus/economic recovery funding.

The Obama adminstration's apparent determination to make HIT a central part of MHR (Major Healthcare Reform).

And the looming threat of cash taken away, in the form of reduced medicare reimbursements to physicians, who in the fairly near future aren't logged on and ready to rock in the e-health community.

Highlighting this last point, one HIMSS presenter argued that even before such reductions enter the picture, clinicians are losing money every day by failing to utilize the savings of electronic systems.

Underlining the potential flood of federal money entering the sector, HIMSS this year is offering 10 education sessions over the four days of the conference focused on the federal economic stimulus package to explain to attendees the various provisions for tapping into this new "gold rush."

Jack Christian, chairman of HIMSS, said that the flow of expected funds is the "largest-ever single investment in healthcare IT to be paid primarily through incentives [and] has enormous reach and influence in our industry."

And, no doubt the extent of that influence will be one of the major stories in U.S. Healthcare over the next several years.

Will this money provide the effiencies and cost reductions, promised, or will it simply be another source for fueling U.S. healthcare's inflationary spiral?

But let's get to that entertainment thing at this HIMSS gathering for instance, in just the opening session, a heavy-on-the-saxophones blues band (this being Chicago, of course); followed by huge, loud, multi-colored flashing graphics; followed by four young women sawing away on violins and extremely hip cello and movie star Dennis Quaid, a celebrity who has turned healthcare safety activist.

Quaid's keynote presentation take-away message to the huge, standing-room-only ballroom crowd:

"Set standards to bring interoperability and security to this amazing revolution in healthcare. You understand the synergies ... and you will lead us to a better and brighter future, to keep families like mine safe."

That message comes from the well-publicized near-tragedy that he and his wife experienced: of failed safety in a large urban hospital, forming the basis for his call to action and establishment of his own foundation to promote hospital safety.

He provided an hour-by-hour account in 2007 of returning their months-old twins, Thomas Boone and Zoe Grace, to Cedars Sinai Medical Hospital (Los Angeles) for treatment of low-level staph infections, and the excruciating anxiety of possibly losing them.

Twice the twins were injected with huge overdoses of heparin, resulting, he said "in thinning their blood to water," causing continuous bleeding that was stopped only after 41 hours of coagulant therapy, the twins in obvious pain during this ordeal.

Quaid was clearly anxious to avoid indicting the healthcare industry, praising Cedar Sinai for subsequently making large investments in patient safety technology and lauding HIMSS attendees for developing these technologies.

He said that the near-fatal medication mistakes were the result of two vials of heparin looking very much alike, but these mix-ups were just one type of error in a chain of many.

He made the point that IT well knows: that human errors will happen, and keep happening, if systems aren't re-engineered to prevent them, illustrating this current lag in healthcare with a video clip of a jet engine attempting to power a Wright Brothers-era aircraft.

Building on this metaphor Quaid noted that airplane travel is currently significantly safer than walking, while the yearly hospital mortality rate in the U.S., as a result of preventable errors, is equivalent to "one major airline crash every day, every year." And he said that these deaths, as the result of "infections and other events, are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S."

He said this data doesn't have the necessary impact because these deaths happen one person at a time over wide geography, and so go unnoticed.

Recounting the personal pain he and his wife experienced provided the emotional backing for his message to attendees: to push for the same type of systems analysis for change seen in the aircraft industry - noting that flocks of birds are certainly getting very close scrutiny today from aeronautic scientists - in order to reduce hospital mortality."

"Where do we go from here?" he asked.

"We have to go back to system solutions to safeguard against predictable human performance errors. We have to make barcoding and electronic records common in all hospitals in this country".

"The U.S. should lead the way, and all of you here, have led to a thresh hold in new patient safety."

And for the conference excitement:

Not many presenters at medical conferences get the extended standing ovations that Quaid got plus a HIMSS contribution to his foundation of $10,000.

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