The crowds at HIMSS this year may have been smaller due to COVID-19 concerns, but the conversations at the annual health IT conference were just as weighty as prior years.

The conference, which spanned several Las Vegas resorts from Caesars to Wynn, netted roughly 19,300 in-person attendees and 5,000 digital, organizers estimated late Thursday. Roughly 700 exhibitors stood up booths on-site. The figures were about half of attendence numbers in 2018 and 2019, but higher than some feared as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Nevada.

But to many, the lure of the massive healthcare conference — and its considerable networking opportunities — was too good to pass up, especially in light of extensive COVID-19 precautions.

“We’re all vaccinated and had so many meetings and thought, why not,” Michele Perry, CEO of patient engagement startup Relatient, told Healthcare Dive on the sidelines of the conference.

At HIMSS, experts shared their thoughts on the future of digital health, artificial intelligence and virtual care; methods to tackle health disparities and cybersecurity breaches; evolving fraud regulations; mental health and more.

The coronavirus was the strain running under it all, as attendees focused on how the sea changes brought from the pandemic will reverberate in healthcare for years to come.

Pandemic forecast: ‘Guarded optimism’

The past few months have seen an unfortunate surge in COVID-19 cases, “that’s in proportion, and reminds us of, what we’ve seen in previous pandemic waves before we were vaccinated. And right now the challenges seem to be the same,” Ran Balicer, chief information officer at Israeli company Clalit Health Services, said.

Driven by the highly infectious delta variant, COVID-19 cases hit 205 million on Thursday, while the death toll climbed above 4.32 million, according to a tracker maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. — which leads the world with total caseloads and deaths as the virus spreads quickly, especially in states with low vaccination rates — is still facing many of the challenges that defined 2020, including misinformation, vaccine hesitancy, a paucity of data and the politicization of the public health response.

But despite rising cases, the world is facing this resurgence with one weapon it didn’t have early last year: knowledge. Along with the availability of multiple viable vaccines, the public emerged from 2020 with more information on sanitary handwashing, social distancing and masking practicing, experts said at HIMSS. That could make this surge easier to curb.

“It feels like we can move forward with some guarded optimism,” HIMSS CEO Hal Wolf said.

That optimism comes even as many predict this coronavirus will never be eradicated completely.

On Wednesday, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told HIMSS attendees that he predicts the coronavirus will continue to mutate for another 12 to 18 months, and that people will likely need booster vaccinations every year, like with flu shots.

“The virus is never going to go away from the planet,” Bancel said.

Throughout the five-day conference, speakers stressed that public health infrastructure needs to become a political priority to deal with future outbreaks. The countries that have fared best in COVID-19 response are those that have historically invested in an integrated system of public health, like Israel, said Hans Henri Kluge, Regional Director of the World Health Organization.

“Healthcare is not an expense. It’s an investment. And if you think for one moment healthcare is not an investment, look at what’s happened to economies around the world when we’ve been unable to respond quickly to a pandemic due to a lack of actionable information,” Wolf said.

Speakers stressed the need for international transparency and partnership, and parsed out how digital tools can help manage future crises.

On a panel on implementing technology to combat health emergencies, speakers recommended governments and health systems prioritize evidence-based protocols and messaging to citizens; establish standard data sets for public health data reporting and a governance structure specifically for communicable diseases; ensure medical organizations have the necessary tech for timely data collection and sharing; and spur the development of digital tools and services to support health programs in areas like disease prevention and testing, among other strategies.

“Digital public health is clearly what matters these days. And the future is digital,” said Bandar Al Knawy, CEO of India’s Ministry of National Guard Health Affairs. “Hopefully, we can have a real time approach to monitoring and surveillance to what leads to infectious diseases.”

Digital health revolution ongoing, but legacy organizations lagging behind

Digital health will play a key role in ameliorating some of the biggest problems facing the U.S. medical system today, experts predicted at HIMSS, but how much of a role depends on uptake.

Management consultancy the Chartis Group released a survey finding 52% of healthcare executives say they haven’t progressed beyond the pilot stages of digital integration, though they understand the need.

Close to half (47%) of the 220 executives surveyed said digital was a “top organizational priority,” while 80% said they planned to increase their digital investments in the future.

“What happened in the pandemic, we were thrust into this digital revolution,” said Thomas Kiesau, senior partner with the Chartis Group, on Wednesday — and many organizations have been trailing behind.

But it’s not that hard to catch up, attendees said. Payers and providers have many tasks that can be done automatically based on protocols, not only around clinical pathways but routine front office work, according to Nick Patel, chief data officer for North Carolina nonprofit Prisma Health.

Digitizing such tasks is an important tool to free up a workforce, especially as physician and nurse shortages continue in the U.S., Patel said.

Collecting data is the first step, especially as health systems manufacture and mine more patient information. But it’s important that executives know what they’re trying to solve with technology before implementing it, ensure any new tools integrate in existing workflows and understand how it fits into their overall strategy, attendees said.

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