Epic UGM

Over 10,000 people flooded into the Deep Space auditorium on Epic Systems’ Verona campus on Tuesday to hear an executive address from Judy Faulkner. Faulkner, a notoriously media-shy businesswoman, prohibits photographers from taking her picture during the speech.

Judy Faulkner, the billionaire CEO of the medical records software company Epic Systems, offered musings on topics from Silicon Valley companies taking on health care technology to a vision of a unified global health care records system in her keynote address at the annual Epic users conference in Verona.

As always, Faulkner did it in her own famously quirky fashion. The theme of the Users Group Meeting, an event that routinely attracts thousands of health care executives and clinicians to the Madison area, was “the Great Outdoors,” and Faulkner correspondingly dressed as a park ranger.

She opened her talk with anecdotes of her own experiences camping, including a time she caught frogs with her bare hands to cook and eat while on a wilderness trek in Oregon, and a time when a black bear sat down on the side of her tent when she and her husband were camping in Canada.

“I wiggled out (of the tent), and we both tried pushing the bear,” she said. “It was like pushing a boulder. It would not move.

“So, welcome to the Users Group Meeting,” she concluded.

Faulkner’s address included a lot of the usual: Welcomes to new customers, and shout-outs to different health systems for their accomplishments through the use of Epic’s suite of digital health care tools.

“I’m always in awe of what you do, and the great and important things on your plate,” she said to the large Deep Space auditorium, filled to its 11,400-seat capacity.

Also typical for Faulkner’s keynote are grandiose descriptions and predictions of the future of health care technology. Last year’s speech zeroed in on the idea of a “comprehensive medical record” that could create a more holistic understanding of patients.

For this year’s address, Faulkner outlined her vision of a single shared network of health care data across a global network of health care systems.

“You’ve eliminated the silos from within your organization,” said Faulkner. “Now it’s time to eliminate the silos from outside.”

Such a shared network is the end goal of Epic’s “One Virtual System Worldwide”, an initiative the company launched earlier this year. The project reflects a new way of approaching the problem of interoperability, or the sharing of health records data between health care systems. Instead of strictly focusing on ways to transfer data between different systems, One Virtual System Worldwide emphasizes the possibility of having everyone be on one shared network.

In such a system, providers would be able to work together across their organizations to achieve the best results for patients, said Faulkner. She also posited that through sharing data and collaborating, there was potential for major medical breakthroughs.

“Together, we can find answers to many puzzling questions, and prevent many diseases,” she said.

Faulkner highlighted curing cancer, better understanding the roots of Alzheimer’s Disease, and creating frameworks for assessing suicide risk were among the examples of problems that may become more solvable through a single virtual system.

Faulkner’s address also included acknowledgment of other software companies engaging in the health care records space. In the past year, Apple and Google each announced tools for organizing or managing patients’ medical data.

“Health care will always be needed. Augmenting our brains, which is what IT does, is always going to be here – assuming no World War III knocks us back to the stone age. And the area in-between is the hottest area around,” said Faulkner.

Faulkner didn’t mention any specific companies on her radar, although she did cite two examples of failures in the health records technology field, Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault Insights, as examples.

She posited that the companies that tend to succeed are the ones who strive to genuinely solve a problem, and are more concerned about doing good than making money. She advised to be wary of companies with a more “mercenary” approach, that may not comply with patient privacy laws and share patient data in inappropriate ways.

Faulkner’s address preceded presentations by other Epic executives, who described updates to the company’s suite of medical records tools and other company initiatives. Among the highlights were expansive voice assistant tools — think “Hey Epic” instead of “Hey Alexa” — and a third-party app marketplace that has grown to include over 100 pieces of software.

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Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.