This August, HIMSS’ Global Health Conference & Exhibition will become one of the first large meetings in the health-care industry to mandate that all participants provide proof of vaccination in order to gain entry to the in-person event.
After going digital in 2020, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society — whose goal is to improve the global health-care system through information and technology and whose attendance at its annual conference and exhibition typically reaches 42,000 — decided to return to an in-person format for 2021. A digital option will be offered to those who choose not to travel. HIMSS21 will convene Aug. 9-13 in Las Vegas at the Venetian-Sands Expo Center, Caesars Forum Conference Center, and Wynn Las Vegas.
Mask-wearing will be supported but not required on the HIMSS21 campus. Because all attendees, exhibitors, and HIMSS staff members must comply with a Right of Entry requirement, registrants will not be required to wear masks on the HIMSS21 campus. The association has created the HIMSS21 Health and Safety Hub, which outlines safety measures and requirements
Convene recently caught up with Karen Malone, vice president of meeting services and sales for HIMSS North America, to learn what prompted the society to adopt a proof of vaccination policy — a large undertaking for an event that ranks No. 23 in the U.S. on the Tradeshow 200 list.
Can you walk us through how and why your organization made the decision to require proof of vaccination at HIMSS21?
As we saw the vaccinations get deployed … in a fairly expeditious way throughout the United States, we felt that this was a path that … we really wanted to consider, especially in light of who our audience is — health care.
The recommendation came from leadership within our organization that we look to mandate vaccination. And then we did some polling of members and some board members. We have a medical panel of doctors and nurses … and we asked them. They were 100 percent in support. Some even went so far to say that if we didn’t mandate it, that there was a good likelihood they wouldn’t be able to come or wouldn’t attend.
Did your team anticipate pushback? Was there any? And if so, how did you handle it?
That’s a great question. Whatever decision you make, going either way, you’re not going to please everyone. We knew that. We were prepared for folks saying, “Oh, I won’t be able to come if you mandate vaccination,” which is why we offered a great alternative with our digital program.
[Pushback] was so minimal, I’ll be honest with you — it was far less than we expected. We had maybe a handful of exhibitors — and smaller exhibitors, for the most part — say to us, “This is going to be tough for us. We don’t know if we’re going to have staff who are vaccinated there who are going to be able to work the booth.”
But at the end of the day, we didn’t have [any exhibitors] cancel because of it. [As for] our attendees … our registration numbers are looking great. We had, maybe, 40 overall inquiries or complaints about it — so very minimal, in the big scheme of things.
What are your expectations in terms of attendance?
Well, that’s the million-dollar question, right? Our professional attendance is tracking very, very high. Our exhibitor staff registration is a little bit low right now but … we’re hearing they will be there. Now that we’ve got this vaccination mandate, they’re going back and they’re just trying to validate their staff [will be] vaccinated.
If we had a crystal ball and we said, “Where do we think we’re going to land?” I think we’re going to say somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 people. In a normal year, we’re around 45,000. But we’ve still got eight weeks so anything can happen between now and then.
How is the mandate affecting your international attendance?
Our international attendance is about 8-9 percent of our total attendance. Right now, it’s running even lower than that — I think … it may be around 3 or 4 percent. We communicate back and forth with our international staff … and they’re speaking with these folks and many of them still plan to come. They’re waiting to see how quickly they’ll be able to get the vaccination. So, fingers crossed. They want to come, they’re excited to come.
How does your vaccination verification process work?
[For the Clear Health Pass app], registrants will be able to integrate their vaccination directly from their vaccination providers. Clear has agreements with several pharmaceutical retailers [who have] this vaccination data already … so it would automatically, seamlessly be validated. Then they’ll get a green screen, and they would bring that to registration.
[With Safe Expo], they can book a Zoom appointment in advance. You show your vaccination card, you show your ID, they see it’s you, and then they mark you as a vaccination ‘go card.’ You’ll get an email saying that you are good to go, you’ll bring that on site to registration and Safe Expo staff will be at the registration queue lines, checking that. Just like at the airport, [there will be a touchscreen kiosk], you’ll answer a couple of questions, and you’ll have to attest to the fact, once again, that you are vaccinated and then you’ll get your badge. You’re good to go on our campus for the entire conference. Anyone who has that badge is vaccination verified.
If you want to just show up on site and show your proof of vaccination, we will have four vaccination centers throughout our campus. The vaccination checkers will be the Safe Expo staff.
Why did you choose to offer multiple verification options through third parties?
People have various comfort levels with how they want [to provide their] personal health information, so [we’ve given them] options depending on that comfort level.
We didn’t want HIMSS managing this or HIMSS staff having this information, we wanted this to be managed by independent third parties.
Who did your team consult with when it came to the privacy issue and any potential legal issues with requiring proof of vaccination?
Our legal counsel, internal and external, had been very involved in this entire process. Honestly, they’re just great. They did the research, they counseled and helped direct us in what options we had available to us.
We considered HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] and GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation], and our legal counsel did come to the conclusion that we can mandate vaccination.
What was the biggest challenge in doing this, and how do you feel about being one of the first major events to navigate this process?
The challenging part was the unknowns, at first, to be honest with you. I think this is the kind of stuff that HIMSS has always been really great at. … We’re very process-oriented … how we can use innovation … but we’re also very sensitive to customers. I think [doing this] really hits on so many of our core values.
Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor of Convene.