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HIMSS 2020 canceled due to coronavirus

On Monday, President Trump was slated to speak at HIMSS 2020. On Thursday, the health IT event was canceled for the first time in 58 years due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Despite adding President Donald Trump to the speaker roster, HIMSS 2020 has been canceled.

Organizers for the 2020 HIMSS Global Health Conference & Exhibition faced a tumultuous week, as President Trump was announced as a last-minute speaker the same day the governor of Florida declared a statewide public health emergency due to the coronavirus. And then news began to emerge that major vendors such as Google, Microsoft, Health Level Seven International and Amazon decided to withdraw from the conference, citing concerns about the outbreak.

On Thursday afternoon, HIMSS announced that it was canceling the event, a first for the conference in 58 years.

"It is now clear that cancellation is unavoidable in order to meet HIMSS' obligation to protect the health and safety of the global HIMSS  community, employees and local residents, as well as for the healthcare providers tasked with keeping our U.S. and global communities healthy," HIMSS said in a statement.

HIMSS will be contacting exhibitors and attendees regarding their booth contracts and registrations, according to the statement.

"We recognize all the hard work that so many have put into preparing for their presentations and panels that accompany every HIMSS conference," Hal Wolf, president and CEO of HIMSS, said in the statement. "Based on evaluation of evolving circumstances and coordination with an external advisory panel of medical professionals to support evidence-based decision making, it is clear that it would be an unacceptable risk to bring so many thousands of people together in Orlando next week."

The health IT event was initially expected to draw nearly 45,000 health IT professionals from around the world as well as 1,300 vendors. Those numbers likely dipped this week as vendors, attendees and speakers decided to pull out. The event cancellation follows in the footsteps of other major conferences that have been canceled recently, including Google I/O and IBM Think.  

Impact of HIMSS cancellation

Health IT professionals should not expect the HIMSS 2020 cancellation to slow down the release of the long-awaited proposed interoperability rule, said Jeffery Smith, vice president of public policy for the American Medical Informatics Association. Indeed, he said there is "serious possibility" it could be released Friday or early next week.

The rule, proposed by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, will require healthcare organizations to implement Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR)-based APIs to enable greater data sharing with patients.

The proposed interoperability rule likely would have dropped before President Trump's speech, slated for 4 p.m. Monday, according to Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey Becker. Trump was expected to talk about interoperability and patient empowerment.

The decision to cancel the event couldn't have been a simple one. According to the HIMSS 2020 cancellation FAQ page, an external advisory panel of medical professionals that HIMSS put in place to advise on the coronavirus helped make the call. It recognized that potential reach of the virus had changed significantly in the last 24 hours, making it impossible to accurately assess the risk it posed to conferencegoers.

The panel also recognized the risk it was placing on the local health system due to the influx of global attendees. In addition, HIMSS heard from attendees concerned about the coronavirus and noted the recent cancellation of several similarly sized conferences. According to the FAQ page, HIMSS 2020 is unlikely to be rescheduled.

HIMSS will not be refunding airline tickets, although the organization is working with hotels to address reimbursement. The organization said an advisement will be sent in 14 business days to address hotel reimbursement, as well as paid attendee and exhibitor badge registration refunds, and exhibitor booth space refunds.

David Chou, a health and life sciences adviser who had planned to attend HIMSS 2020, said he will miss the networking aspect of the conference, but will still be able to receive product announcements and updates from vendors without being on site. Chou said he understood the decision to cancel the event, especially as travel restrictions began impacting healthcare systems who would've attended the event as buyers.

"HIMSS has always been a staple event," he said. "From a healthcare provider perspective, it is the largest event for technology. It's probably an event most vendors really commit to and they plan at least six to eight months before just to get everything ready for this week-long session."

On Twitter, Lonnie Hirsch, a healthcare marketing and business consulting expert, said the financial and economic impact of canceling HIMSS is "incalculable." 

In the wake of the HIMSS 2020 cancellation, some companies are offering a digital alternative. While HIMSS will not be making sessions or panels available virtually, EHR vendor Allscripts plans to host the Allscripts Virtual Experience to showcase presenters and content they had originally planned for the conference. In a statement, EHR vendor Meditech said it also plans "to offer virtual demonstrations for all scheduled presentations."

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