Part 2, Q&A with next HIMSS CEO Hal Wolf: Health IT industry shouldn’t fear AI

Embracing artificial intelligence (AI) technology is “a necessity” for the health IT industry, according to Harold “Hal” Wolf III, the next president and CEO of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS).

Before his official start date, Wolf spoke with Clinical Innovation & Technology for a two-part interview. Part 1 can be found here here, covering Wolf’s thoughts on following Stephen Lieber’s 17-year tenure at HIMSS, interoperability, cybersecurity and the frustrations providers have with IT vendors. In Part 2, Wolf touches on AI, as well as opportunities he sees in health IT and why HIMSS will continue to stay out of the congressional debate on the Affordable Care Act.

Clinical Innovation & Technology: We’ve talked about challenges in health IT. What opportunities do you see for the industry?

Harold “Hal” Wolf III: How does health IT enable the delivery of the right information at the right time to multiple layers of the ecosystem? From that, I would say, many of our solutions are focused on potential silos and bunkers individually, and rightfully so, it takes a level of expertise. Some organizations try to think end-to-end, but it’s hard to be all things to all people. Inevitably, there will be different levels of expertise that will be drawn upon. Health IT needs to recognize that, as they have, continue to strive for interoperability, as we’re doing, but really listen as we start to get refinement in the use of information, and I think that is our biggest opportunity.

This is where the value proposition is going to come from for all the investment that’s been done. It’s absolutely on the right track. We just need to figure out how to maximize it.

You know as well as I do that financial challenges—and this is not just in the U.S., but in the healthcare industry as a whole—are only going to become more exasperating. It’s only going to get worse. We know this economically, and it was reinforced to me with my recent work with the (World Health Organization), that if you look at the ratios of taxpayers who are producing gross domestic product to pay for healthcare services, that ratio is shrinking. Denmark’s a great example. Currently, 3.2 people are paying for each person who uses healthcare services who is not working. That ratio by 2025 will be projected to be at 2.3 people, so the financial pressures globally will continue to mount.

If we do not find better value in the use of information to improve quality, access and capability through technology, we’ll just see that hole getting bigger. I think that’s our challenge in front of us, which of course is incredibly exciting.

That brings us to the topic of policy. HIMSS has deliberately stayed out of the debate over the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—calling it “swimming outside of our lane” at the most recent HIMSS conference. Under your leadership, will HIMSS continue to stay out of that debate?

Like you, I read a lot of editorials and comments, I watch a lot of television, a lot of news shows to try and understand what is going on. If anyone can predict where that’s going to land, I really want to get to know that person very well, because there’s a whole bunch of stocks and horses and everything else I’d love to get their feedback on.

This is not an area that’s HIMSS’s level of expertise, if you would, on trying to influence how the insurance markets and how the fundamental payments through Congress and the policy are going to land. That really isn’t our lane. That being said, we do have several key lanes that we do swim in, which is regardless of how the payments are occurring, to a degree, how do we influence interoperability? How do we tear down the boundaries to improve access to telehealth, medical devices and payments for those types of services?

That gets back to that original challenge, which is we have to be able to utilize these assets to do more with the recognition that no matter where they land in Washington, there’s probably going to less money than there was before. We have to deliver value on what we have and what we’ll be investing in the future. So yes, I think we’ll stay out of (the ACA debate). It’s important to us if in the end it will become a dependency or an impact, but it’s not where our expertise is.

One of the most-discussed topics at the last HIMSS conference was AI. It’s caused some concern about the potential for eliminating health IT jobs, but how do you feel people in the industry should view this technology?

No one should be concerned about the impact on health IT. In its most simplistic way, AI creates building knowledge and more precise information, predictive modeling and recommendations. Think about it in terms of clinical decision support—enablers, if you would. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge being accumulated in healthcare, from the most basic research of a drug to genomics and its impact and correlation of that data, and its effective volume that no individual can keep up with.

If you go back to 1970s, you had a few major journals producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 to 400 peer-reviewed articles a year. If you were a physician or a clinician, if you read an article a day, you could probably keep up with the majority of peer-reviewed articles that were being published. This year, there will be thousands. The accumulation of data and the information, the knowledge management which is happening is huge. Healthcare AI helps even that playing field between the knowledge that is being accumulated, the analytical thoughts and the enablers at a much higher level. So do I see it as a hindrance? No, I see it as a necessity which is going more everyone more effective in their roles.

In terms of adoption rates, (it’s) probably a little slower than I would’ve thought if you asked me the same question five years ago. I think it speaks to the adoption of not just EHRs, but how do you use the information in it. This will come right back to the value proposition. We need to be there to help support the growth and the use of information and how it works for with the clinicians and the consumers and the patients. So I think AI’s a big part of that.

[Ed. note: The first half of this Q&A can be found here.]