HIMSS21: Recapping the top trends in digital health

August 19, 2021 Windstream Enterprise 5 min
The 60th year of the HIMSS conference had plenty to address in regard to the digital health industry's huge year of business. See what the biggest trends were coming out of the event that will influence the future of healthcare.

Last week, Health Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) members and healthcare professionals—from CIOs and senior executives, providers and payers to IT consultants and entrepreneurs—gathered at the annual HIMSS conference to glean insights into the year to come for digital health.

man speaking at a business event

What greeted them at this premier Health IT conference looked a lot different than prior years. The recent rise of COVID-19 cases foreshadowed the weeklong event, offering another distressing moment in the pandemic best described as a clash between the desire for normalcy and imperative for caution.

But if there was ever a time for tech innovation to play an even more pivotal role in healthcare, that time is now. That’s what made this gathering of great minds within this industry so essential this year. Here are those important takeaways we captured from HIMSS21.

Preserving the healthy population

Preserving the health of a population—such as the global population during a pandemic—requires a true sense of collaboration and cooperation among nations, their citizens and leadership, with decisions grounded in scientific facts. Best said by HIMSS President and CEO Hal Wolf, “Our call to action has never been louder or had a greater need than right now…We all become part of one society to impact the global health ecosystem.” 

Wolf touched on the global issues facing healthcare systems—including an aging population, a lack of actionable information, cybersecurity threats, staff shortages and shifting consumer expectations—which have only become more complicated by the politicization of the pandemic, now worsened by the Delta variant.

Yet, the answers will always lie in digital health. COVID-19 sped up many things in the healthcare industry and there’s no turning back from it now. “Typically, [the industry moves] at a glacial pace as we look to begin using new technologies and solutions,” said Dr. Andrew W. Burchett, chief medical information officer at Avera Health. “With the pandemic, we were able to rapidly virtualize our care environments, continue to provide excellent care to our patients and keep our staff working.”

Escalating Ransomware Attacks

HIMSS21 attendees looking for optimism around cybersecurity were swiftly met with a dose of realism and disappointment. “Anyone looking for good news and encouragement about the current cyberthreat landscape still has time to leave the room,” Errol Weiss, chief security officer at H-ISAC, jokingly warned.

Ransomware rampantly ripped through the healthcare industry, and evidence shows that it will continue to worsen. A distressing study found that more than one-third of health organizations were hit by ransomware last year, and 65% said the cybercriminals were successful in encrypting their data.1 As long as there is money in this business, the bad guys will always be on the prowl.

Cybercriminals are continuously becoming more sophisticated. There are fears that they’ll evolve into committing AI-based attacks. But the real challenge with ransomware attacks is that security practices in healthcare still generally aren’t keeping pace with the speed of these new and sinister developments.

This leaves a heated debate open around what organizations must do when (not if) they are held at whim by cybercriminals. “The goal of your organization is to protect lives and humans…You need to get systems up and running. You need to save lives,” said Michael Coates, co-founder and CEO of Altitude Network. His advice is that if you are not in a “stick ‘em up” situation today, “use that breathing room to figure out a plan of attack beforehand.” That’s why healthcare organizations are embracing the latest healthcare-enabling technologies, like SD-WAN, to provide a secure, reliable foundation against cybercrime.

Shifting patient demands

In order to support consumers and patient expectations, the healthcare ecosystem would benefit from accelerating the technologies that make the industry more personal and convenient, increasing transparency and providing omnichannel methods that reach patients when and how they want.

COVID acted as a powerful catalyst for adopting innovative solutions. Virtual consults and immediate access via telehealth accelerated digital healthcare in a short period of time. Tech is responsible for creating better experiences by offering meaningful engagement with patients at their desired level of connectivity.

Health systems that haven’t adopted some level of digital health tools are undoubtedly falling behind. Windstream Enterprise customer Appalachian Regional Healthcare is looked at as a success story. They embraced modern connectivity solutions to increase bandwidth and reliability while greatly reducing network outages amongst their 100+ hospitals and clinics. The industry must keep a foot on the pedal to remain innovative.

Collaborating with technology

On the HIMSS21 stage, Cris Ross, CIO at Mayo Clinic, spoke about their journey to stay connected last year. Without the pandemic, Cris admitted it would’ve taken years to accomplish the level of communications and to support the decision to send 20,000 of their employees to work from home. “Instead, we figured out how to deploy Microsoft Teams for collaboration. We don’t want to take unnecessary risks, but we proved we could be agile and quick.”

Collaboration is not simply taking in-office tools home; rather, it’s the practice of organizations and employees embracing new ways of working. Video collaboration allowed for this while assisting with widespread hiring and telehealth efforts. Touchless check-ins, texting and technology that limits time spent in the waiting room are just the beginning of collaborative technology in the new normal for medical care.

Humanizing data

Each year, HIMSS digs deeper into the use of machine learning and AI to improve care and explores how implementing and integrating data and analytics fits into real-world applications. AI provides limitless insights into data to show what’s actually making an impact and what’s wasting money. AI succeeds where there is a culture of innovation. It also acts as the perfect complement to storytelling and tapping into the heart and soul of healthcare. “Data can change minds, and stories can change hearts,” said Vikas Chowdhry, the chief analytics and information officer at the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation.

Learnings from HIMSS21

Woven into every trend, panel and presentation coming out of HIMSS21 was that the key for modern health IT environments is agility, flexibility and scalability. We are far from out of the woods with this pandemic, and it won’t be the last challenge the healthcare industry faces. Having the right solutions in place to support these things will determine who thrives or barely survives the next crisis. While the tone remains serious around healthcare, there is light and positivity to be found around each corner. “There is nothing like a good disaster to bring people together in a different way,” said Lindsay-Wood, the vice president and chief information officer of Moffitt Cancer Center. “It’s exhilarating to see teams that don’t usually spend time together creating solutions to address an urgent need.”


  1. Pifer, Rebecca, “More than 1/3 of health organizations hit by ransomware last year, report finds.” Healthcare Dive. June 24, 2021.
Key Takeaway
As the first major in-person digital health conference since the start of COVID-19, there are many lessons about how technology will continue to support resiliency within the industry.

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