mHealth Summit Identity Crisis

I was at the mHealth Summit this week. Thankfully I got in Monday morning and missed most of the travel problems on Sunday. I did wait about an hour outside for a cab at DCA and found myself wishing I’d used Uber like Mr. H did, but I don’t have Uber in my home city so it’s not top of mind for me when I’m looking for a ride.

As Mr. H wrote earlier this week, the Summit is still dealing with an identity crisis. The last time Mr. H attended in 2010, the conference was the first time we met in person, the year Bill Gates spoke, and the last year before HIMSS bought the conference. That year the focus was on global health and the big stars were doing things like SMS for community health workers in Africa, mobile virtual care to millions of rural people in India, counterfeit medication checking over SMS, or mobile adherence for TB and HIV treatment.

Back then it was not commercial in the way the Summit is now. I remember talking to some US-based mobile vendors that year who were exhibiting because they didn’t want to miss anything, but didn’t feel like they were getting any ROI being at the conference. Come to think of it, I didn’t see any of those vendors this year at the Summit.

The unfortunate part is that the identity crisis is not new for the Summit. It’s been like this for several years. It is a disjointed event with mobile mixed with startups mixed with some research and global health artifact. Some of the companies exhibiting are barely mobile (they have a responsive web app) or not mobile at all.

With the exception of maybe Cerner, which had a Cerner Mobility booth, none of the big EHR vendors were exhibiting. I did meet representatives for several EHR vendors, but they were just doing some research and scouting at the event. I got the impression they just wanted to make sure they didn’t miss anything.

I was disappointed with the keynotes and the panels. The ones I saw seemed to be saying the same things they said last year. I’m paraphrasing, but most of the formal content at the Summit translated to, "Mobile is everywhere and mobile is the future of healthcare." It’s a great promotional event for Pew because pretty much everybody quotes the Pew mobile stats when they talk about mobile.

What I would have preferred to see was fewer commercial presentations and more real-life experiences, data, and outcomes. Sound bites are well and good, but tangible findings and outcomes matter a heck of a lot more. 

One other piece of advice to organizers is to restrict presentation times and extend the amount of time for audience Q&A. I’m at fault here — I should have changed the format of the panel I moderated to be more interactive, or at least more time on interactivity. The audience Q&A always seems to bring out the most interesting and valuable content. Also, people and organizations are paying a lot to attend these conferences, so let them help determine the value they get out of it.

Several vendors I know asked me if I thought it made sense to exhibit at the Summit. The answer largely depends on who’s buying. The nice thing for some vendors — especially ones that have a real product (not vaporware) and a small amount of traction — is that those vendors can get attention. Vendors don’t have to be a large scale to stand out in the crowd. They are not drowned out by massive booths with fireplaces from the likes of Epic and others. Qualcomm and others had some very large booths at the Summit (no fireplaces or cloud carpet), but I didn’t get the impression those large vendors were overshadowing anybody.

My personal highlight was meeting and being on a panel with Tom Daschle. The panel was on regulation and compliance for app builders and was sponsored by the App Developer Alliance. What impressed me about Senator Daschle (I guess that’s a lifelong title since everybody called him that) was his 15 minute talk. The guy delivered flawlessly using a few notecards with talking points. I realize he’s done it thousands of times and I realize he has a lot of canned healthcare-related content, but the delivery seemed effortless and it was impressive to watch it up close.

Not surprising, @HealthcareWen wins my vote for Tweet Master at the Summit. She posted relevant updates about the keynotes and sessions. She also coordinated some great get-togethers outside the formal Summit stuff.

Imprivata wins my vote hands down for best swag at the conference with touchscreen gloves. Maybe it’s just because the temperature in Wisconsin hasn’t gotten over 14 degrees since I got back from the Summit and it was zero this morning on my way out. These gloves were well timed and have been getting a lot of use. I also got back to my soft-top Jeep at the airport on Tuesday and these were the only gloves I had for the ride home. Added bonus: I got two pairs, so I looked like a hero with my wife when I got home.

It was great to see Mr. H, Kyle, and to meet Lorre. It was also pretty cool to see a HIStalk booth and a very good location for it as well. I think we need a bit more POW BANG at the booth, but I know this was mostly a trial run and I’m excited to see what we do next. Does anybody have ideas for what we could do with a HIStalk booth at other conferences?

I’m curious what other attendees thought of the conference. Some people I spoke with, several of which were attending the Summit for the first time, had similar feedback about the quality of sessions and disconnectedness of the content. Did others get a different impression? What sessions were good that I missed (since I missed most)?


Travis Good is an MD/MBA and co-founder of Catalyze. More about me.

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