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Electronic health records giant Epic Systems turns 40

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There were fancy cupcakes, by the thousands, at Epic Systems Corp. in Verona on March 22 and if there had been candles, they would have burned with 40 flames for Epic founder Judy Faulkner to blow out.

It was the 40th anniversary of the date Epic celebrates as its founding — a company that was among the first to move medical records from voluminous paper files in bulging cabinets to digital records accessible with a few fingertip taps.

In 1979, armed with a master’s degree in computer science from UW-Madison and a bachelor’s in math from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Faulkner launched Human Services Computing in a basement office of an apartment building at 2020 University Avenue.

Today, the company — long ago renamed Epic Systems Corp. — has 9,800 employees, a sprawling campus in Verona, and $2.9 billion in annual revenue. More than 250 million people worldwide have medical records on software created by Epic, one of the giants in the electronic health records business.

“Epic’s mission statement is: Do good. Basically, that tells the entire message,” said Stephen Dickmann, chief administration officer, who started working at Epic in 1999.

Epic Systems over the years

This is the computer that held the first records for the company, founded in 1979, that became Epic Systems Corp. Founder Judy Faulkner was the sole full-time employee.

Forty years ago, with a single Data General computer, Eclipse model — about the size of a current washer-dryer stacked laundry combo — Faulkner started the business as a database management system and called the system Epic.

At the outset, Epic’s target industry was health care, but not so much to track an individual’s health history, as it does now. Back then, the goal was to better manage external factors such as scheduling appointments, operating room access, and patients’ names and addresses in order to make hospital records more efficient, said Mike Hegyi, senior systems architect, an Epic employee since 1992.

“Every time a patient came in, they didn’t have to type all the information into it. It really tracked changes in data, over time, very efficiently,” Hegyi said.

As the computer industry changed, enhancing the type of data that was possible to record, so did Epic’s emphasis move to monitor the nature of patients’ interactions with the health care system and to target not just hospital organizations but clinics, as well.

The company’s staff grew, too.

Growing by leaps and bounds

By the end of 1995, Epic had 100 clients nationwide and 125 employees to serve them. The company occupied the former Odana School at 5301 Tokay Blvd., and was building an addition there.

Epic Systems over the years

In the 1990s, Epic occupied the former Odana School building, 5301 Tokay Blvd., and ran out of space as the company grew. This 1997 photo shows construction of a $10 million addition, rising behind Westgate Mall.

By 2001, even that space was not enough to hold Epic, which was renting offices in half a dozen locations in addition to its West Side headquarters. The employee count stood at 550 when Epic announced it would buy a 340-acre swath of undeveloped land in the town of Verona and construct up to four buildings, in phases.

Two years later, in 2003, Epic touted its “largest contract ever” — an agreement to supply software programs to the 30 hospitals, 423 medical offices and more than 11,000 physicians serving Oakland, California-based Kaiser Permanente’s 8.4 million patients. The dollar value of the deal was not disclosed but Kaiser said it was part of the organization’s $1.8 billion effort to digitize patient records.

Expansion moved even more swiftly for Epic when Congress passed the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, authorizing up to $27 billion in incentive payments for health care providers to adopt electronic health records. The government’s goal was to get all of that data online by 2014.

Epic has been one of the big winners of that business.

Today, Epic has more than 440 client companies and organizations worldwide, ranging from hospitals to retail clinics and hospice centers.

Epic Systems over the years

Epic's red, curved Voyager Hall, part of the Learning Campus -- shown in this 2007 photo -- is a landmark for the sprawling campus in Verona.

Epic’s Verona campus encompasses 1,100 acres — almost as big at the 1,200-acre UW Arboretum — with 22 office buildings, two large food service buildings, a training center with 65 training rooms and a 5,800-seat auditorium, and the Deep Space auditorium that seats 11,400.

The property value of the campus topped $1 billion as of Jan. 1, 2017, according to Adam Sayre, interim city administrator in Verona.

Epic Systems over the years

Epic's Kings Cross building is the culinary center of the company's Wizards Academy buildings.

Also noteworthy

Here are some other statistics about Epic and its campus:

  • 9,000 parking spaces, most of them in underground ramps
  • More than 7 million square feet of buildings, including offices, parking structures and other facilities
  • 6,200 photovoltaic solar panels that can produce up to 1.5 megawatts of electricity
  • 6 wind turbines with a capacity of 9.9 megawatts, installed northwest of Madison in the town of Springfield

Epic’s campus is known for its unconventional office building themes, unusual architectural features, and untold number of quirky works of arts, many of them purchased at Madison’s annual Art Fair on the Square.

Epic Systems over the years

Ever wish you could leave your office behind and retreat to the haven of a cozy tree house? This one at Epic Systems is made of scraps and leftovers from Campus 1 construction. A cowbell chimes as employees step across the wooden suspension bridge. But inside, there are electric lights and plenty of sockets to plug in laptop computers.

There’s the treehouse, a rustic retreat built in a cluster of red pine and black cherry trees, accessed via a wooden plank bridge; slides in two buildings to access a lower floor; a disassembled International Harvester tractor whose parts are artistically mounted on a wall; statues of Star Wars’ Yoda and the Dr. Seuss character, the Cat in the Hat.

And a carousel

One of the more recent additions is the 1927 Parker carousel purchased from Ella’s Deli for an undisclosed amount, along with about 250 of the whimsical circus-like toys that had characterized the East Washington Avenue restaurant that closed in 2018.

Epic Systems over the years

Workers with JP Cullen work to disassemble the carousel outside the former Ella's Deli in 2018. The carousel, purchased by Epic Systems Corp., has been put back together and is available to see on tours of Epic's Verona campus. 

The carousel has been restored and is exhibited in a two-story atrium lobby of the Epicenter training center. “It needed a little TLC” but is in “very good shape,” Dickmann said. “We run it on special occasions.”

Epic visitors can see it and even take pictures on it, if they come through on guided tours, or on self-guided tours, which are allowed from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, for groups of seven or fewer, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

There are five clusters of buildings and each has its own name and themes: the Prairie campus, Central Park campus, farm campus, Wizards Academy campus and Storybook campus.

The most recent, the Storybook campus, has four buildings and up to three more could be built, Dickmann said. But for now, at least, new construction has halted. Construction cranes, omnipresent at Epic from 2003 to 2018, are gone.

“We have a hiatus,” Dickmann said. The next office building is in the planning stage but it’s “not needed yet,” he said.

Sticking to principles

While Epic’s domain has expanded and its campus has spread, some things about the company remain unchanged.

Epic Systems over the years

Epic Systems Corp. founder and CEO Judy Faulkner

Judy Faulkner, now 75, still leads Epic and has announced no plans to retire.

She is still determined to keep Epic privately owned and to have all of Epic’s software developed by company employees, though she has allowed a marketplace to be set up to offer access to health technology apps made by other companies.

In 2015, Faulkner told Modern Healthcare magazine she was setting up a foundation to hold the majority of her Epic stock to fund nonprofits and to keep Epic in private hands.

President Carl Dvorak seems to be second-in-charge at Epic, and with both Dvorak and Faulkner known to be media-averse, Sumit Rana, senior vice president of research and development and third in the pecking order, seems to be taking a lead role as the company’s public voice.

Faulkner, who has declined State Journal requests for an interview, remains publicly silent about her own future plans.

Hegyi said Faulkner still shows up for work every day and her influence permeates Epic. “We learned, very early on, that culture was going to be very important,” he said. “It starts with the people. We do hire very, very smart people.”

They, in turn, see Faulkner as “brilliant,” Hegyi said. “They don’t necessarily always understand why she’s gone a certain direction — sometimes she goes against general convention. But it turns out to be the right thing. She just has this knack of leading us in the right direction. But if you talk to her, she is modest, very humble and does not like being in the spotlight.”

Epic Systems over the years

Epic's Verona campus is known for its colorful, unusual artwork, such as this wooden sculpture meant to express joy.

Behind the scenes

Epic is low-key to the public eye. The company almost never advertises, has no official marketing department and its sales staff numbers fewer than 10, said Meghan Roh, the sole Epic media relations contact.

Behind the scenes, though, personal touches persist, Dickmann and Hegyi said.

“If you call our main number, you don’t talk to an automated answering system. You talk to a human being,” Dickmann said.

Since the early days, Faulkner has shunned company use of metered mail, opting instead for a stamp.

“We still use a proper postage stamp,” Hegyi said. “Metered mail looks generic. But something with a stamp makes you pause and look at it. That same type of mentality extends to the campus.”

Epic is the largest non-government employer in Dane County and the largest woman-run company in the county, according to the 2019 Wisconsin State Journal Book of Business.

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