EHI aLive and kicking

It was with some trepidation that I arrived at Birmingham’s NEC on a damp Monday morning for the start of EHI Live 2011. I’ve been attending healthcare IT events and conferences for 15 years now, and recently they have seemed to be in serious decline.

Once you could barely move along the aisles because they were packed with senior NHS delegates who had a clear vision of what healthcare IT could achieve for patients, and the budgets to make it happen. More recently I’ve attended events where the loudest noises were the faint squeak of vendors crushing stress balls, and the murmuring as they visited one anothers’ stands to compare woes. Camaraderie in gloom!

Highland Marketing used to advise clients on choosing which events to attend. These days it’s about whether to turn up at all. Having looked at the advance material for EHI Live 2011, I gave a guarded recommendation that it was worth a go. Being an exhibitor involves a substantial investment, so my fingers were firmly crossed when I walked through the doors.

Relief. It was great. Lots of high-ranking NHS folk and a genuine buzz of enthusiasm in the air. The organisers reckon that they had 1,535 delegates and visitors (up 43% on last year) mixing with 718 exhibitors at 122 stands. At the same time EHI Intelligence has published a market forecast which suggests that English NHS hospital and mental health trusts will increase their IT spending by 3.7% over the next three years – creating a market worth £883 million.

Perhaps the NEC event was an early tangible sign of an upturn. Certainly the feedback we had from vendors was that it yielded some genuine business opportunities. My own sense is that there is a feeling of real
expectation among vendors and potential customers alike – but that there are still uncertainties to be negotiated. Will the Information Revolution ever materialise? What will happen to the remnants of the National Programme? What form will NHS commissioning end up taking? How much real freedom will trusts have to decide their own IT packages? What national guidelines and standards will they have to meet? Once we have clarity trusts can press the ‘go’ button.

The danger remains that the success of EHI Live 2011 may not be replicated at other events. Indeed, organisers should be coming up with ways to refresh their formats and offer something new. Too many events are basically exhibition + conference. Nonetheless, there’s clearly life in the old dog yet. So even if long winter months lie ahead for most of us, let’s hope that the healthcare IT market has finally begun to thaw.

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