Orlando – Amid the throng of 30,000 or more attending the HIMSS conference here in Florida you’ll spot a good number of military service members in camo fatigues. While they look quite fit and capable roaming the halls at the biggest health technology conference held in the U.S., they aren’t here to address any security threat.

As you come to learn, the DoD sends more personnel to the HIMSS conference than any other organization and is plainly ahead of the curve in many areas pertinent to health care.

As soon as you think of it, you say, sure, that makes sense. Besides attending, the DoD carves out exhibition space at HIMSS to talk to anyone interested. It’s transparency that is a complete rebuke to the stereotype of government incompetency.

In fact, the U.S. armed services have always been early adopters and aggressive users of data-centric technology. I started learning this myself about eight years ago when the Navy described some (then) cutting-edge work in collaboration that gave task forces secure satellite-based messaging and imaging systems to discuss anything from engine breakdowns to where to board a hostile vessel. It was far ahead of anything done to that point.

These stories go on and on: it was only a year later, in 2004, that the Army established electronic health records for all its personnel. That’s something a lot of organizations at this year’s HIMSS conference still can’t equal. For everything I don’t know about the state of health care technology, most of my personal interaction with it has been a case of things working badly.

Join the service, however, and you’re fully updated in the system for life. The Army alone does this across 53 hospitals and endless outpatient facilities at home and in the field.

On a shuttle to the convention center I found myself between a pair of U.S. Army majors. One was Maj. Chani Cordero who’d flown in from her station in Korea just to look at new systems for her managed care and case management practices overseas. She was also meeting with peers to discuss process improvements at the facilities she oversees, her eighth appearance at the conference.

On the other side was Maj. Mary Peters, the CIO at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Maj. Peters, with an Airborne patch on one shoulder and a flag on the other, was also using the event to study best practices and told me assuredly about planning underway to consolidate outpatient systems across the three largest service branches. In another setting this would not be unlike combining the transactional systems of, say, the big three auto makers.

Peters, like Cordero, welcomed and encouraged any question about her work and came off as terrifically professional and confident that the job would be hard, but just the next bit of work ahead. It was just the latest reminder that the Army and other service branches are leaders by example of being first movers and a great place to look for inspiration.

“It’s good to work where you are ahead of the curve and where you have the talent and commitment to finish your assignment,” Peter’s told me. “I can’t say we’re the best at what we do, partly because when you’re the first to adopt systems you do a lot of learning. But we’re pretty darned good.”

When you watch the combination of meritocracy and the way rank and discipline are at work in this Army, you can start to draw a vision of corporate culture in the rest of the world that doesn’t exist in most of our experience. If it’s something we can’t model in an open market, to see it is to want to follow it.

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