As you stroll the exhibit floor at the annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society conference, it's hard to miss the Interoperability Showcase, where dozens of information systems and medical devices from different vendors send data hither and yon, simulating a health care environment with (ideally) a seamless, glitch-free flow of information.

Its presenting organization is Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise (IHE), a consortium of professional associations, providers, government agencies, research institutions and vendors whose goal is to turn the plethora of HIT data communication standards into something that's usable in the real world. IHE was founded in 1997 by HIMSS and the Radiological Society of North America.

The showcase doesn't just happen by magic, of course. Baseball has spring training, Broadway shows have tech week, and the Interoperability Showcase has the Connectathon.

Almost 600 engineers and programmers from more than 100 health I.T. and medical device companies spent January 9-14 in a hotel basement in Chicago getting their systems talking at this year's event.

Rows of tables in the lowest level of the Hyatt Regency Chicago were crammed with computers and gadgetry, medical and otherwise, and the enormous room hummed with the energy of I.T. creators doing their favorite thing: getting stuff to work. Participants hunched over their screens with coffee and Coke to sustain them, or clustered in conversation in the aisles. Orange-vested monitors roamed the room checking on everyone's progress.

More than 5,000 different connections were made among the participating systems, accomplishing tens of thousands of transactions. The event represented about $2.4 million worth of programming time, according to organizers, not including the pre-event preparation and set-up, and any time spent by staff back at the vendors' home offices.

James St. Clair, HIMSS director of interoperability and standards, calls the Connectathon the "Lollapalooza of HIT," where collaboration enables achievements that wouldn't occur in the labs of the individual companies.

"In addition to the work that they've signed up to validate, [the participants] can work together to validate other things that will be important later and will translate into new functionality in their next release," he says. The event grows every year: this year the number of vendors increased by 19 percent.

Unlike a trade show exhibit floor, a Connectathon is utterly democratic: programmers from GE Healthcare and Siemens sit at the same size tables as those from the smallest niche vendors, and each company has the same modestly sized sign.

"This is the one time when the engineers from big and small vendors can get together," says Elliot Sloane, co-chair of IHE International and a professor of biomedical engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "If you're a small vendor, it's not easy to take a big system like Epic or Cerner, install it in your lab, and test it to see whether your system will work with it."

A feature story in the March issue of Health Data Management walks through the week that was Connectathon and its importance to the industry

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