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HIMSS 2015 delightfully chaotic

CHICAGO — Overheard on the show floor at HIMSS 2015: “Hey, I like that analytics engine.”

HIMSS 2015 was a health techie’s wonderland, with plenty of partying, delightful chaos among hundreds of vendors and more than 43,000 attendees hoofing it across the vast expanses of the McCormick Place convention center, North America’s largest.

The conference and exhibition delivered on its promise of showcasing the startling breadth of the health IT business. It wrapped up today, April 16, with a closing keynote by Karen DeSalvo, M.D., the national coordinator for health IT. The keynoter the day before was former president George W. Bush, an unlikely forefather of modern health IT as the creator of Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT (ONC), in 2004.

One of the more entertaining plot lines of the show was the behind-the-scenes tussle over potential customers and sometimes quite public battle between the two giant EHR vendor foes, Epic Systems Corp. and Cerner Corp.

When Epic, a day into the show, abruptly suspended or canceled (we don’t know yet which) its $2.50- per-transaction fee for interactions with its homegrown health information exchange (HIE), Cerner, which had long called attention to the fee as an alleged price-gouging ploy, trumpeted the news on the walls of its expansive show floor booth.

Epic, meanwhile, dispatched its irrepressibly techie chief operating officer, Carl Dvorak, to an unlikely venue: a high-profile morning panel on HL7 International’s FHIR (Fast Health Interoperability Resources) draft standard, a rallying point for interoperability advocates.

Epic is a charter member of the Argonaut Project, the HL7-bred coalition that is developing FHIR, but the privately held company still has a reputation, fair or not, for building somewhat closed EHR systems.

For his part, Dvorak played his role with abundant good humor, jousting playfully with fellow panelists, including John Halamka, M.D., the celebrity CIO at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Halamka participated via a clunky phone connection that HL7 CEO Charles Jaffe, M.D., conducted by holding his mobile phone up to the podium microphone.

When it was Dvorak’s turn at the podium after Halamka delivered an animated speech about the benefits of FHIR and what he painted as the shackles of government over-regulation, Dvorak gestured toward Jaffe’s phone, which had just stopped crackling with Halamka’s voice:

“Can we put him on mute?” Dvorak asked.

The packed room erupted in laughter.

Over at the distinctive Epic booth, the installation was decorated in sort of a homey style with faux exposed brick, giant butterflies suspended from the ceiling and fanciful statuettes of the odd, dragon-like creatures that play a part in Epic’s unusual corporate culture.

The sheer volume of visitors to the show and the distances they needed to travel by foot – unless opting for one of the small, electric, wheeled “trollies” that cautiously criss-cross McCormick’s huge South and North exhibition halls – created some pretty amusing moments.

On Monday, the first day exhibits were open to the public, show-goers crowded four or five deep at the entrance to the South Hall just before the 11 a.m. opening bell as seen-it-all security guards shouted to the mass of eager HIMSS people to walk, not run, as they entered.

“We’re talking about safety here,” the security chief bellowed.

As for partying, the athenahealth, Inc. shindig at the Hard Rock Café Tuesday night was reportedly rocking, and it featured an appearance by the cloud EHR vendor’s famously exuberant CEO, Jonathan  Bush, who arrived at the party with whipped cream on his face after being “pied” at a previous venue.