What's new at HIMSS? Airbnb

A lot has changed since the last time I attended the Healthcare Information Management and Systems Society (HIMSS) meeting a few years back, but the biggest difference in my own experience at #HIMSS13 had nothing at all to do with health information technology. Rather, the big change was that even though I could only book 10 days ahead I was able to find low cost lodging close to the event, thanks to Airbnb, which describes itself as “a social website that connects people who have space with those who are looking for a place to stay.” Airbnb used information technology and social networking to completely transform my lodging experience from what it was only a couple years back. I’d love to see health IT transform health care to the same degree and as quickly. And although I do not believe health IT companies can just copy Airbnb’s model, perhaps some of the same principles can apply.

Here’s how things worked for me:

About 10 days before the conference I decided to go. But with 35,000 attendees –many coming from Boston– there were no flights whatsoever on Sunday, March 3, when I was available to leave, even if I had been willing to pay $1000 one-way. So instead I got creative and booked a flight from Providence, RI to Gulfport, MS. That wasn’t ideal, and it’s the same thing I would have done a year or two ago. I decided to stay in Gulfport, then drive or take a cab 80 miles to New Orleans on Monday morning. No rental cars were available for that trip so a cab it was.

Lodging was another story, with a happier ending. Hotels anywhere close to the convention center were sold out, although I did find a room at the Hilton for $900. No thanks. A couple years back I would have found a room 30 or 50 miles away or looked for a friend with a place there. But I remembering hearing about Airbnb and decided to give it a try. There were several listings for individual rooms and even whole apartments and houses within 3 or 4 miles of the conference. Many individual rooms were under $100. I signed up for an account, which took very little time, then followed a number of steps designed to increase trust and safety: I verified my phone number, connected via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I filled out a brief profile.

I looked through the listings, which included photos, bios of the hosts, and lots of reviews by people who had stayed at the specific properties, as verified by Airbnb. Most reviews were pretty positive, but hosts had replied to negative ones and gone into detail. I got a much better sense of what I was in for than anything I’ve encountered in health care. I selected a room for about $80 (< 1/10 of the Hilton price) and tried to book it. I sent a message to my host explaining why I was coming and letting him know I was a nice guy. This host had a policy, enforced through Airbnb, of approving prospective guests before accepting them. According to the site, most hosts reply within a couple hours, but they have up to 24. When I didn’t hear back within 2 hours I selected another spot, advertised as Street Car to Jazz Fest/French Quarter, which allowed instant bookings. This place was only $60 for a private room plus another $10 cleaning fee and $8 for Airbnb itself. The hosts’ extensive description gave me a good understanding of the place, mentioned free Internet, restaurants within walking distance, etc. Reviews were generally quite positive –and although it sounded much more like my hostel experiences from 20+ years ago rather than my more recent travel preferences– I decided to go for it. Information on Airbnb showed that the hosts, Robyn and Amanda responded to 100% of their listings, response time was quick, and that they updated their calendar frequently.

I was also reassured my Airbnb’s 24/7 phone support and various safety and security tips and guarantees.

I’m glad I went the Airbnb route. My hosts and I communicated over the Airbnb website but I also was given their phone number and email address. We coordinated my arrival time, they offered me a parking spot (which I didn’t need) and when I got there they recommended a close by restaurant that met my needs and suggested a cab company. (It was United Cab, which didn’t show up even after I confirmed and re-confirmed, but that’s not my h0sts’ fault).

I met a young French couple that was staying there for a month, and there were a bunch of law students staying there doing volunteer work. They were downstairs, though, so not bothering me. I had a good night’s sleep and was on my way.

Airbnb released my $100 security deposit within 24 hours and sent me a message asking for a review, which I provided and is now published. My hosts also reviewed me, so future hosts can see what I’m like (laid back, according to my hosts). And Airbnb let me communicate privately with the company if I had concerns I didn’t want shared or posted. (I didn’t.)

As I wrote, Airbnb’s innovations don’t translate directly into health care. There are some companies, including Castlight and ZocDoc that apply certain aspects of the model, including transparency of data and ease of booking appointments. Newer companies including Informedika and par8o are applying some of the┬áprinciples┬áto physician consultations and referrals. But there is room for a lot more and I’m hopeful Airbnb and other consumer Internet innovators will be inspirations. In particular I’m hopeful that new approaches will provide an alternative approach for providers that don’t want to be parts of big organizations.

In the meantime, Airbnb itself is making a contribution to health care by reducing expenses and increasing convenience of conference goers like me. No doubt it’s also being used by families who need to travel to other cities for medical visits.

March 8, 2013

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