HIMSS CEO: Cancelling conference was 'heartbreaking,' but HIMSS20 Digital is set for growth

In a Q&A with Healthcare IT News, Hal Wolf spoke about the tumultuous past weeks and what’s next for the nonprofit organization.
By Jonah Comstock
10:33 AM

This past week, just days before it was scheduled to begin – with a sitting president, for the first time ever, addressing its opening session – HIMSS announced the cancellation of its 2020 Global Health Conference & Exhibition.

In the days that followed, the organization has mobilized to create and roll out HIMSS Digital – a platform that will seek to gradually deliver online versions of much of the content that was planned for the event.

Healthcare IT News sat down with HIMSS CEO Hal Wolf to talk about this historic and tumultuous week and how the organization will be moving forward.

Q. Let’s start with HIMSS20. This is the first time the conference has been cancelled in 58 years, and there was an incredible amount of pressure on your shoulders. Tell me about that decision, how you got there and how you’re feeling about it now.

A. It really was not a decision for us. From our point of view it was an unavoidable action that we needed to take. As you know, HIMSS Global Conference takes 18 months to prepare. We’ve been working on HIMSS21 for six months and it’s going to seem like a freight train when it pops up in 12 months.

HIMSS20 was the embodiment of a number of big programs for HIMSS. Our rebranding was out at full speed, really pushing the industry to be the change and changemakers, launching of the Digital Health Index, and we had some products coming out. So we wanted very much as anyone would for HIMSS Global Health Conference to take place.

But as the cases continued to grow we assembled a group of medical advisors. They included epidemiologists, people from all over the country. I wanted to get an evidence-based view of this for people going to HIMSS. I wasn’t asking them for a commercial guidance, I was asking them purely from a medical standpoint, what was the risk.

And we found that leading up to that week that, while there was risk, the risk was relatively low from a population health standpoint.

A week ago Tuesday the numbers changed. The CDC and the WHO issued revised numbers on death rates per thousand, they issued revised numbers for the infection rates that were occurring, and we realized that what we perceived before as a potentially acceptable risk we could no longer label as such.

And in fact it looked like it was headed towards what happened [this past Wednesday], which was more of a pandemic. There was no way to even consider at that point keeping HIMSS20 Global Health Conference going. We had to cancel.

And we really had three pieces. One was the impact on the staff and the attendees. Secondly, what would happen if someone got infected and went back to their place of work and it impacted a hospital’s production? That was another concern. It really was based upon recognizing the state of the disease, and it was an unacceptable risk for the ecosystem that we represent.

I will tell you unquestionably, it was the most heartbreaking action I’ve ever had to take, because it was going to be an amazing conference. But as heartbreaking as it was, because of all the work that went into it, I didn’t lose an ounce of sleep over knowing that it was the right thing to do. And, unfortunately as we’ve seen the pandemic finally declared, it turned out to be the right thing.

Q. So tell me about HIMSS Digital. How is HIMSS trying to keep the event alive online?

A. When we put a program together for any HIMSS Global conference, over 2,000 people submit really well thought-through educational presentations they want to share with their peers. The conference, more than anything, else is about thought leadership.

And as a member-based organization nonprofit with over 80,000 members, when 45,000 people come to HIMSS a lot of it is around thought leadership, sharing ideas, best practices, lessons learned.

So we knew immediately what we wanted to do is to figure out how do we take presentations that would have been made in all of those rooms and make them available. So we realized immediately that we wanted to accelerate what we call HIMSS Digital.

I use the word accelerate because we have been planning all along that in the second half of 2020, and launching into 2021, we wanted to accelerate our digital products in order to create value for our members.

We’ve been in the process of working on customer relations management, back-end systems, thinking about how we would approach our members in order to improve the value proposition for them at HIMSS. How do we become ingrained in partnerships with other thought leaders?

WHO is an example, the European Society of Cardiology, other organizations. How do we become more involved in this reform of healthcare? HIMSS Digital is the platform of the future for us that we were going to build, so we just realized we have to accelerate it.

The next thing we had to look at is we have a number of organizations that put together some amazing presentations for HIMSS. Some of them were sponsored, some were things they were going to be doing in their booths, product launches taking place.

So we’re trying to mitigate that best we can and we’re going back to everyone to gain permission in order to take that information and put it up on HIMSS20 Digital. We’re maturing the idea and the platform as fast as possible.

We kicked it off this week with Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, who was at the epicenter of the virus in Seattle. She was the Chief Clinical Officer at Providence. We had the largest webinar audience in the history of HIMSS, with more than 1,300 people at its peak tuning in to hear this information, which will also be available recorded, so people can go back and see it again. And with all the presentations we’ll do our best to have them available in a database so people can come back and see them later.

I’ve had many letters thrilled about this idea, because people often say “At HIMSS I love going to the presentations, I just wish there were two or three of me because two or three are going on simultaneously." So this is the beginning of us making that available.

If you have a reservation to HIMSS this year, two great things come out of it. One is, you get access to this content, and it will be available at himssconference.org. And also, if you were registered for HIMSS20 — and this has been a policy for HIMSS for years that we’ve never had to use – you’ll automatically have that registration transfer to HIMSS21 in Las Vegas.

So we’re going to do our best to bring you what we can out of HIMSS20, and you’re already pre-registered for HIMSS21 and it’s paid for. So that’s the really good news for individuals – you’ll get value out of both years. And it’s the least we can do for everyone who’s been so supportive.

Q. Is there a fear of over-succeeding? That in future years people will see less value in the in-person event?

A. No, not at all. In fact, if anything, I think it will actually enhance it. Here’s the reason why: We’ve always seen the global conference as a place where individuals come to be with other people, run into old acquaintances they haven’t seen before, do networking. People want to sit down and have hands-on experience with new applications. They want to hear the best and the brightest talking.

There’s something very important in humanity about a social gathering. And it has its drawbacks in a time of crisis, but the reason the global conference has continued to grow is because it’s a meaningful exchange.

It’s also become a place where governments from around the world come, including our own, to make key announcements. Why do they do that here? They do it because they’re surrounded by the leadership of the exact place where rules and regulations and new thought needs to be discussed. They can see in real-time what the reaction is and have discussions with leaders in the industry.

It’s also where our chapters come together and our members come for value. It’s a place where CIOs come together and specialty programs can be done.

What has been frustrating for many people is "How do I sustain the HIMSS experience 365 days a year?" And we believe by improving our platform in the digital domain, both will occur.

Q. This was supposed to be the first time a sitting president would have addressed the conference. How will HIMSS move forward from missing that opportunity?

A. We’ve always had a very positive relationship with all the administrations, whether they’re Democratic or Republican, largely because, if you look back at digital health policy in the United States, from meaningful use to today, we have been very supportive and very much behind the policies of all the administrations.

We can have arguments in our country about reimbursement when you think about how reimbursement is being done for Medicare, etc., but the policies that all of the administrations have had, when you look at the collective growth and you look at the collective movement of digital health, it has all been very promising. We know that this administration has done a number of things, and you saw the issuance of the new rules that came out this Monday, and they were going to be introduced at HIMSS.

We have been very fortunate to always have secretaries of HHS, administrators of CMS, relationships with the Office of the National Coordinator. Those things will continue.

It was very special to have a sitting president coming. There’s always a wonderful controversy when you have a sitting president coming, because at that moment in time they may be popular or unpopular, but nonetheless it was a tribute to the importance of healthcare in the ecosystem. And where better to address leadership of that ecosystem than at HIMSS?

So my hope and aspiration for HIMSS is that we continue to have that position from an administrative standpoint, and whoever is in the White House next year we will look to see if we can fit it into their timing and their agenda. Many things dictate the availability of a president, so we will have to start early. But we’ll see what we can do.

Q. What about other HIMSS events? What kind of reassurance can you offer?

A. I would offer this reassurance: any decision about holding any event will be based upon first and foremost the safety and the health of the attendees, of our staff, of our members, of our exhibitors, of our sponsors. In the current situation where we have a pandemic, we would not be looking to hold an event tomorrow any more than we’re having HIMSS20 today. All of this is a guessing game as to when this pandemic will pull back and when we will come back to our new definition of normal.

In the case of Helsinki, we’re looking for potential backup dates, but we will make the decision based on the status of health in the world. And that will be our guiding light as it was in the case of HIMSS20. [Note: The HIMSS & Health 2.0 European Conference 2020, which had been scheduled for May 26-28 in Helsinki, has now been postponed to September 7-9, 2020.]

Q. When will presenters hear about what they need to do to be involved?

A. We’re working on that schedule right now, as quickly as possible.

I want to be super clear that for everyone who did the educational program we’re going to do what we can do to make sure every one of them gets a chance to present. We’re also going to spread it out, we have multiple stages of this.

And in fairness to the organization, we have simultaneously been having to deal with the shift away from HIMSS20, which is really intense, as well as standing up HIMSS Digital at the exact same time. Which we weren’t planning to do, since we thought we’d all be at HIMSS this week. So, as soon as possible, and by that we mean the next week or two at the latest.

Q. Is there anything positive that has come out of this crisis for you?

A. The vision of HIMSS is to realize the full health potential of every human everywhere. We see our responsibility to improve the health and the lives of individuals globally. We have a mission to reform the global health ecosystem through the power of information and technology. These aren’t just words, we live them every day. We are about improving health for everybody globally. And I really believe that HIMSS is about using information and technology to do that. We believe in digital health.

If anything comes out of this virus that is positive, I hope it is a clear understanding to the world about how important the use of digital health is, or remote access, exchange of information, integration of devices, standardization through the global consortium we put together on interoperability. That’s what we stand for, but we are a part of the health ecosystem. Our situation in Orlando was driven by one thing: Our responsibility to the health ecosystem.

In the end, what HIMSS is about is providing the best path forward for the reform of that global health ecosystem, and we believe in it passionately.

I hope people, when they wonder why we took the unavoidable action that we took, it’s because we had one thing in mind and that’s the health of everybody – and that’s who we are. I hope people appreciate that and recognize it. Because it is the core of why we are a nonprofit.

Jonah Comstock is Director of Content Development at HIMSS Media
Twitter: @JonahComstock
Email: jonah.comstock@himssmedia.com

Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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