Judy Faulkner

Over 11,000 people filled Epic Systems' Deep Space auditorium to hear CEO reflect on the company's history on Tuesday morning.

Epic Systems Corporation CEO and co-founder Judy Faulkner usually talks about health care’s future during her keynote speech at the company’s annual gathering of customers. But this year, the billionaire behind the massive Verona-based electronic medical records developer decided to reflect on the past.

That was partly due to the theme of this year’s Users Group Meeting: the 1970s.

“People often think I was a hippie, but I have no idea what marijuana smells like. I was more of a nerd than a hippie, and more specifically, a math nerd,” said Faulkner on Tuesday morning, reminiscing about her younger years while decked out in bell-bottom jeans and a flowy shirt, addressing an audience of around 11,000 in the company’s Deep Space auditorium.

Faulkner was also in a reflective mode because this year marks the 40th birthday of Epic Systems. To mark the anniversary, Faulkner told the story of the company’s growth, from its beginnings in the basement of an office building on Old University Avenue, to its emergence as a market leader in medical software, with a workforce of around 10,000 and a client base of about 400.

Faulkner lingered on pivotal points along Epic’s timeline: There was the company’s introduction of the first records software that used a graphical user interface in 1994, which Faulkner described as the “start of the EMR industry.” Then came the company’s first efforts to share patient data across different health systems in the mid-2000s, which she said happened after her husband, a physician, complained to her that patients were dying due to the lack of exchange between providers.

At the heart of her talk were core themes that Faulkner has a reputation for emphasizing: a focus on the patient, and software built entirely in-house. At a time when health care IT remains a hot industry, Faulkner said that the company’s dedication to building all of its software in-house instead of acquiring the software of others remains a key differentiator.

“Why did we go a different direction? I was thinking about that as I was putting this show together,” said Faulkner. “Most CEO founders come from business. They think about mergers and acquisitions, and going public. But I was a programmer.”

Themes of recent Faulkner keynotes have included futurology – namely, how things like driverless cars and lab-grown meat might shape the world of health care IT – and the importance of shifting away from an “electronic health record,” and toward a “comprehensive health record” that takes into account social determinants of health, genomics and environmental data into account.

This year, Faulkner spent more time focused not just on the past, but also on the present. A portion of her speech focused on ongoing issues around medical software, from the changing regulatory landscape, to the growth of third party applications, to doctor burnout and productivity.

She also stressed the importance of utilizing Epic’s vast array of features and applications, many of which are automated and artificial intelligence-driven, to improve outcomes for patients. She said that Epic would soon launch an initiative to have its customers save 100,000 lives through improved use of the company’s technology.

As always, the Users Group Meeting also featured presentations by various department heads and executives on pieces of software that the company has in development. Those included Cosmos, a massive database of patient biomedical data that Epic claims could change clinical decisionmaking and medical research; an automated nursing and physician mission control system that could automatically assign tasks to staffers based on patients’ needs (for example, sending Spanish-speaking nurses to a room with Spanish-speaking patients); and a “conversation-driven documentation system” for outpatient appointments, in which doctors could take notes and bring up computer records exclusively by giving “Hey Epic” commands with a voice-recognition system.

This year’s UGM was attended by around 7,000 health care executives, physicians and others representing Epic’s client base. The weeklong event features booths featuring third party apps and EMR-adjacent services, dozens of classes and workshops on everything from handling revenue to cybersecurity, and attractions like rides around campus on a horse-and-carriage, or a ride on the old Ella’s Deli carousel, which Epic bought in 2018.

UGM is one of three major conferences that Epic hosts each year, in addition to XGM – a gathering of technicians and other software experts – and the Un-users Group Meeting, where non-Epic customers can get a crash course in the software.

Faulkner will appear at Cap Times Idea Fest on Saturday, Sept. 14 at 10:50 a.m. in Shannon Hall to talk about Epic’s history.

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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.