New leadership will be directing the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society at this time next year, as current president and CEO Steve Lieber announced plans to retire from the position by the end of this year.

Lieber has been in the lead role of the healthcare IT industry’s largest professional organization since 2000. He has overseen significant growth in HIMSS membership, its marquee annual conference and program growth that’s paralleled the rise in stature of information technology in the healthcare industry.

Steve Lieber
Steve Lieber

Here, we reprint an interview conducted last year in which Lieber reflected with HDM Editor Fred Bazzoli on his organization, this industry and what he sees ahead in the next few years.

By any measure, HIMSS has grown significantly as an organization in the last 10 years. What are the most significant reasons driving this growth?

HIMSS’ growth parallels what’s going on in healthcare and what’s gone on in the technology sector. It parallels what we’ve been able to do and what’s changed in the industry. There’s been a definite change in way we use technology and the way healthcare professionals are using technology. It’s very much a quality improvement tool, a patient safety tool.

In terms of significant drivers, you have to start with the federal role, because that really was the major reason. You had the Bush administration in 2004 stating the need for electronic patient records, then creating the ONC and then leading into the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act in 2009. There were a series of steps taken at the federal level to raise the awareness of what technology can do. It even began earlier, in 1999, with the Institutes of Medicine report around the severe problems in patient safety caused by the lack of computerization. It took a while for that mentality to really take root.

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Of all these factors, ARRA really caused what we’re seeing today. Before that, IT was a non-reimbursable expense; providers didn’t get paid for managing information, and it was just a cost in everybody’s mind and we really weren’t moving that fast toward adoption of EHRs. ARRA provided the absolute spark for what we now see today. It drove a greater interest in what HIMSS was doing, and our organization grew at the same time as the uptake of technology.

A factor that helped HIMSS grow in its role was the internal decision that HIMSS should not just be solely focused on the U.S. healthcare system, and that there is a mission to be served globally. That’s fueled a tremendous amount of growth. I can look back and see that we’ve made a difference and have assisted countries in moving down this path; HIMSS is helping change healthcare in many parts of the world.

HIMSS has also grown in breadth, serving more segments of the healthcare IT industry, such as those seen in some of the pre-conference symposia. What areas of professional focus do you see gaining the most attention within the healthcare IT industry?

Cyber security is the topic that has everybody worried right now, in terms of having under control all aspects of data security, not only external but internal, within the organization as well. This concern is bringing different people into HIMSS than those that were here before, and we’re working to provide good information and training around the protection of data. A focus that’s very current and important for us to work on is that of connected health, or personal connected health for patients, and it’s a future direction that will gain more attention in the healthcare sector. There’s growing recognition that the patient is becoming more of a consumer and a more informed consumer, and that will impact expectations of providers and provider systems. This is an area that we’re going to be making significant investments in, while continuing to do what we do in the provider section. Healthcare is a slowly evolving sector, and we do have to be a little anticipatory for what’s coming.

Has HIMSS changed or adapted its philosophy for providing information to the industry? The annual conference is a major annual industry event, but what new approaches has HIMSS tried in recent years that also have been effective at providing needed healthcare IT education?

We’ve changed a lot from 16 years ago, when we had one big event, and that was basically it. Today, we produce over 100 events around the world. We’ve taken our model and replicated it to expand our reach and provide many more people with access to the information we have. We have started helping vendors understand the value of education, through HIMSS Media, and get their message in front of this market through custom content, another non-traditional way for us to exercise our position and influence to ensure the level of professional education is ever increasing. We do a lot in distance learning. We got on the front end of the curve 10 to 12 years ago, making information available on line through predesigned courses capturing content that we present in a variety of places. One of the things we’ve changed in our thinking is not simply how we serve members. There’s a much greater universe of people out there, and we engage half a million people a year who take something from HIMSS over the course of a 12-month period.

What lies ahead for HIMSS? What areas of development or growth do you see for the organization in the next few years?

As I said, we’re beginning to focus on personal connected health. We’re looking toward engagement of non-IT health executives, and we are trying to develop additional programs and services for them, because a lot of the decision making around IT occurs outside of the traditional IT structure in organizations, so we’re very much focused on engaging non-IT professionals in the work we do. An area we’ve been involved in for 20 years is interoperability, which is progressing and will make everything work and flow so much better. Lastly, a key focus for us is around the value of health IT. We don’t have the same conversations that we had on this 10 to 15 years ago, but people still ask, “What will I get from my IT investment?” Over the next few days, we’ll be rolling out the HIMSS Value Score, a model-based assessment tool that assigns a value to IT systems based on technological, clinical and financial outcomes.

Where do you expect the industry to be in the next 5 years? What challenges will still need to be overcome?

My vision is that technology is viewed as a strategic asset and not as a tool utilized in a toolbox fashion. Oftentimes, IT is simply viewed as a tool. I disagree. Information is a strategic asset, and technology is not just simply a tool; it is a way in which work is accomplished, just like having highly qualified physicians or nurses. No one looks at clinical staff at a facility and says we can cut corners on that because it doesn’t matter. Technology is the same thing; it is not only a way in which we can improve productivity; it is going to be a determining factor in terms of what our future health status will be and how we’ll do population health management. It is so strategic in how we will address the future of healthcare. I don’t see how anyone can think of it as anything less.

The expectations will go up as well, and I think we’re moving well down that path that technology will be able to meet those expectations. It is a field where there is still some maturity yet to come. The challenges that we are going to be dealing with are the things that technology can solve; limited resources, lack of access, less than expected quality. That plays into the role of technology because that’s exactly what technology can do. It can stretch resources farther, it can provide greater access to clinicians, it can provide better outcomes by clinicians being able to get ahead of things. Healthcare is going toward this high-level usage of technology. Our clinicians will be doing things in five to 10 years that they can only imagine today. More information will be available to deliver the care that they provide. It’s a great opportunity and, in many respects, it’s what I saw in the industry when I came to HIMSS. As I look at it 16 years later, the future of healthcare is still in technology, and we’re trying to do what we can to make sure professionals are well-supported.

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