This content is part of the Conference Coverage: HIMSS 2018 conference coverage and analysis

HIMSS 2017 buzz ranges from patient engagement to AI, machine learning

The busy floor and outskirts of HIMSS 2017 were abuzz with hot health IT topics ranging from patient engagement and care collaboration to AI and machine learning.

ORLANDO -- HIMSS 2017 buzz centered on health data cybersecurity, but that hot topic of recent years' gatherings of the health IT universe simmered alongside emerging trends such as patient engagement and artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Opening day at the Orange County Convention Center, Feb. 20 was marked by news that a major medical center had suspended its joint project with cognitive computing giant IBM Watson; ironically, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty gave the opening keynote.

While that surprising development cast a shadow at HIMSS 2017 on the widely heralded promise of cognitive computing and AI in healthcare, AI and machine learning remain at the core of technology strategies of many health IT companies.

One of them, Salt Lake City-based Health Catalyst, long known as a data center provider, has grown into a diverse health IT services and systems vendor with a wide portfolio of care management, analytics, population health and financial decision support products.

"We know that machine learning and AI are having an impact on healthcare and it's going to continue and grow and it's going to be big," Dale Sanders, executive vice president at Health Catalyst, said at the firm's expansive booth on the bustling HIMSS 2017 floor. "I have never seen an acceleration of technology in my 33-year career like I've seen in just the last two years."

Meanwhile, technologies for patient engagement, which have been bubbling under the surface of other health IT systems for several years, appear to be taking a more prominent role.

A survey of 500 patients and 400 physicians released at HIMSS 2017 by West Corporation, a vendor of communication and network infrastructure services, reported that 91% of patients say they need help managing their chronic disease, and 75% want their providers to check in with them regularly.

Executives at the company, which sells tools such as automated text, email and phone messaging to patients for medication adherence and regular check-ins, said the survey showed that patient engagement is critical.

"Patient engagement is the core of everything," said Allison Hart, vice president of marketing communications for interactive services and healthcare at West. "We really strongly feel that organizations that are prioritizing patient engagement are going to be the organizations best positioned to reduce their cost of care, increase care quality and reduce readmissions."

At an offsite media and industry breakfast hosted by health IT research and consulting firm Chilmark Research, patient engagement analyst Brian Eastwood said he views patient engagement as a kind of patient, or consumer, relationship management approach.

"Engagement is not just the process, but a step in the process, one that requires more than just these individualized touchpoints related to specific care episodes, but much more as a longitudinal process between care episodes," Eastwood said.

In addition to showcasing major health IT players from the EHR, data analytics, cybersecurity and population health worlds and up and coming health IT firms, HIMSS 2017 was popular among big non-health IT-specific tech and communications companies making aggressive forays into healthcare.

Among these were AT&T, Cannon, Honeywell, Mitre, Oracle, SAP and Verizon.

AT&T, for example, has been busy in recent years putting its earth-spanning communications networks and mobility services to use for a range of internet of things applications in healthcare.

A year ago, the communications giant opened a connected health "foundry," or lab, at the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute in Houston; it is among several such AT&T labs for various niche industries.

At HIMSS 2017, AT&T proudly displayed some IoT in healthcare devices made by companies with which AT&T has either partnered with or simply sold its communications and mobile services to.

These included Google Glass eyeglasses for the blind that allow an "agent" to assist a blind person who wears them by directing them remotely and "seeing' what the blind person would see if he or she could; a connected wheelchair with remote diagnostics and analytics; and personal alert systems that look like wrist watches.

As for cybersecurity, Mac McMillan, co-founder and CEO of health data security and privacy company CynergisTek, said healthcare providers will continue to be bombarded by cyber hackers in 2017, as they were the last two years.

Top defenses include a culture of security in the healthcare organization, and using advanced tools such as identity analytics, McMillan said.

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