For the first time in 58 years, HIMSS has cancelled its global conference due to raised concerns about the corona virus (COVID19). I’m sure it was a struggle to make such a big decision, especially so close to the start of the conference. HIMSS leadership made the right decision to be cautious under the current circumstances. And make no mistake, this is a big deal with immediate tactical implications and longer-term strategic concerns for health IT companies (and others). So, what should HIT companies do right now?
1. Make Lemonade
When you have lemons, make lemonade. Cancelling a major tradeshow like HIMSS means a bumper-crop of lemons for HIT companies. Some relatively easy lemonade recipes include:
Salvage HIMSS Opportunities by Going Virtual. Meetings with customers and prospects is a key draw and value proposition for attending HIMSS. Big trade shows are major drivers of lead generation and downstream revenue. The smart move is to salvage this by immediately converting your scheduled in-person meetings to virtual. Our company had done contingency planning prior to the show, so we were able to move instantly after HIMSS announced the cancellation. It's not too late. Make this a priority and use the same time slots for virtual meetings. You should also circle back to prospects or customers who declined to meet or weren't planning to attend HIMSS to see if you can schedule a virtual meeting with them, too.
Seek a (Legitimate) Marketing Hook. Does your company offer a product or service that is a legitimate part of the response to COVID19? Here's an opportunity to strut your stuff. For example, telehealth companies could show how they support remote work and caregiving. Given concerns about COVID19 patients coming to healthcare facilities for treatment, we can expect to see more demand for virtual solutions. Solutions that support provider and patient education, clinical decision support, translation services, and suchhave important roles to make sure everyone has the most current information and that it is actionable in containing the spread and treating the sick.
2. Prepare Your Company for the Short-term
While it is unclear what the scope and ultimate impact of COVID19 will be on the economy, there is little doubt that it will affect many businesses. There are several short-term things that most business should do:
Make COVID19 Planning a Priority. Leadership teams should formally make this a priority. First, identify a point person to stay on top of the evolving situation and how others are addressing business-related concerns. In our case, having a Chief Medical Officer made it easy to identify who should be the executive lead. Assuming you don't have a medical professional on your team, seek someone who has the interest and time to keep up with the information shared.
Your company should consider specific issues you are likely to face and put contingency plans in place. For example:
- What criteria will you use to make key decisions?
- What is your sick leave policy and how will it impact your staff?
- What travel policy should you adopt?
- What options does you staff have to work remotely?
- How will you deal with staff who end up in quarantine?
- How will you maintain contact with key prospects and customers? And, how will you continue to deliver for them?
Educate, Educate, Educate.
In the face of a novel virus and rapidly changing circumstances, education is essential. Again, having a point person responsible for keeping up on the latest and educating members of your company is a good place to start. The goal is to prevent the spread of misinformation, fear, and COVID19, while also preserving business continuity.
Our company put these measures in place recently. We took advantage of various company meetings and HIMSS planning sessions to review what is known and unknown about COVID19, to promote common sense prevention and treatment measures, and to discuss the importance of staying home if you are sick, making use of teleconferencing, contingency planning, etc.
We are careful to clearly communicate that we are not "practicing medicine" or giving specific advice to individuals. We are simply sharing publicly available information from organizations like CDC and WHO. Individuals with specific concerns are urged to consult with their healthcare provider. We have made it abundantly clear that we trust our employees to make wise choices and value their health more than business concerns.
3. Prepare your Company for the Long-term
A colleague sent me this article, "Coronavirus: The Black Swan of 2020," which I found to be a concise, clear-headed assessment of the likely economic impact of COVID19. This is not a happy read, but it does present the opportunity to prepare and have contingency plans in place. It is likely to be several quarters before we have a sense of the full impact and much longer for a full economic recovery to occur.
The authors note that while there are some businesses that stand to benefit, many will face challenges including:
- Business activity decline. Some saw growth rates drop sharply between December and February. Others are now at risk of missing their Q1--2020 plans. Its logical to expect this will worsen as the effects of the virus spread.
- Supply chain disruptions. The China "lock down" is directly impacting global supply chains. Hardware, direct-to-consumer, and retailing companies may need to find alternative suppliers. While software companies may have less exposure to supply chain disruptions, they should consider risk due to cascading economic effects.
- Curtailment of travel and canceled meetings. With each passing hour, more companies are banning all “non-essential” travel and/or all international travel.
When it comes to dealing with the longer-term impact, the authors offer the following advice:
"...nobody ever regrets making fast and decisive adjustments to changing circumstances. In downturns, revenue and cash levels always fall faster than expenses. In some ways, business mirrors biology. As Darwin surmised, those who survive 'are not the strongest or the most intelligent, but the most adaptable to change.'"
They go on to suggest questioning many assumptions about your business, including:
- Cash runway. Do you really have as much runway as you think? Ask the hard questions about impact on revenue and expenses and make contingency plans now to avoid potentially painful future consequences.
- Fundraising. Private financings could soften significantly. What will you do if fundraising proves difficult in 2020 and 2021?
- Sales forecasts. Even if you don't see any direct or immediate exposure for your company, anticipate that your customers may revise their spending habits.
- Marketing. With softening sales, you should revisit customer acquisition costs to maintain consistent returns on marketing spending.
- Headcount. Given that people are often a big driver of expenses, take time to evaluate critically whether you can do more with less and raise productivity.
- Capital spending. Until you have charted a course to financial independence, examine whether your capital spending plans are sensible in this uncertain environment.
4. Keep Calm and Carry On
While we don't know the full impact COVID19 will have on people and the economy, it's clear it will be significant.
"#FactsNotFear." There is a lot to be said for the #FactsNotFear hashtag when it comes to challenges like an evolving epidemic. We are in the early stages where data and knowledge are limited. It is easy for fear to take over and cloud our judgement. Not having a plan is out of the question. Instead you should:
- Put COVID19 on your agenda and make sure you have the right folks staying on top of it.
- Prepare ahead with contingency plans for the most likely scenarios.
- Educate yourself and staff members on common sense measures for preventing spread and dealing with suspected infections. Use reliable sources and tamp down rumors and misinformation.
- Communicate frequently and openly within management and with employees. Avoid “happy talk” which is unrealistic and undermines trust.
- Monitor the external and internal situation and adjust as circumstances evolve.
This is a good time to follow the British advice to “Keep Calm and Carry On.” While we shouldn’t put our heads in the sand, we also shouldn’t lose our heads and panic. The best remedy is to arm ourselves with the best available information, engage in honest and transparent discussions, and develop contingency plans that are open to change over time.