12-9-2013 5-01-58 PM

I’m at the mHealth Summit at the Gaylord National Resort and across the Potomac River from Washington, DC on the Maryland side. It’s a 2,000-room hotel surrounded by chain restaurants and stores in one of those destination developments aimed squarely at tourists who want to travel without being exposed to anything new, or heaven forbid, local (think Orlando on the Potomac. ) The weather has been terrible with snow and freezing rain, which has added to the feeling of captivity of being in a hotel intentionally located far from competing restaurants and stores and with no convenient shuttle service or Metro station access, meaning everything you eat or drink will cost twice what the market would otherwise command. It’s an expense account crowd, so they don’t seem to mind.

The last time I attended this conference was in 2010, when it was still being run by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health and held in the Washington Convention Center. HIMSS took over in the meantime and attendance has more than doubled to around 5,000. Quibbles aside, HIMSS knows how to run conferences much better than the NIH, meaning there is good signage, an annoyingly peppy opening session featuring questionable curated pop music and lighting, and a strong vendor and commercial presence. It’s much more enjoyable.

I felt as though I had intruded on a geeky academic conference in 2010, although with Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and Aneesh Chopra speaking, the keynote star power was a lot higher then than now. Presentations back then were often about public health projects in Africa, government informatics research, and government policy. The “exhibit hall” was mostly just a part of the hallway where public health poster presentations were displayed, along with a modest presence by the telecom companies. I felt somewhere between virtuous and bored being there.

HIMSS, as it usually does, put all of that unsexy and unprofitable subject matter almost out of sight. Now the conference is a freewheeling ode to capitalism showcasing companies willing and able to pay big bucks for space in the exhibit hall and in the endless number of HIMSS-owned publications. The exhibit hall is like a downsized version of that at the HIMSS conference and most of the educational sessions are either about companies or feature vendor people as presenters or moderators. The attendee demographic seems to have shifted from a heavy non-US presence to the same kind of minimally diverse suited people who go to the HIMSS conference, except few of the folks here are from hospitals since we hospital rabble are seen as part of the problem, not of the solution.

HIMSS seems to be positioning the mHealth Summit as the minor league of its conference portfolio. Most of the small mHealth exhibitors will be toast in a couple of years, but those who survive will graduate …read more