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Judy Faulkner: 'Good software is art'

In a frank conversation with Healthcare IT News, the Epic CEO says her company gets a bad rap. But the numbers show it more than stacks up.

Bernie Monegain, Editor, Healthcare IT News

LAS VEGAS – For Judy Faulkner, the quest for interoperability started in 2004.

"We were the first," she pointed out in an interview with Healthcare IT News, on Tuesday in a meeting room at the Epic booth. As she walks into the small space, she is in search of chocolate, and she finds it.

She settles into one of the sofas, prepared to make her way through a series of questions.

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The interview begins with the topic of interoperability because Epic has a reputation – among some circles – of being a "closed system."

Is it a bad rap? It is, she says.

She recalls exactly when she started the work because it was prompted by a tragedy. A child for whom her husband Gordon, a pediatrician, had provided good care, went with family to Milwaukee about 75 miles from home.

"She got sick, she went to the ER, and she died," Faulkner says.

Faulkner's husband, kept saying over and over, "if they'd just had her record, it wasn't hard, they would have known what to do."

"So then that's when I said, 'OK, we're doing interoperability' – although I didn't know the word. All I knew was, we were going to send the records over."

[Also: See photos from Day 1 of HIMSS16]

So the work on interoperability started in 2004, and go live was 2007.

"It took us a while to go live because when we finished writing interoperability, customers were afraid to use it," she said.

Faulkner was at a HIMSS meeting at about that time. She was on the HIMSS board then –  "and I recall saying when will interoperability be standardized? They said, it will take years, and I said, 'we can't wait.'"

Epic is often compared with the Commonwell Health Alliance, an interoperability group started by executives from Cerner, McKesson, Allscripts, athenahealth, Greenway and RelayHealth to enable care integration and data liquidity.

The group launched its initiative at HIMSS13, and it has grown since.

Faulkner notes that Epic not only measures up on the interoperability front, but has out-performed other initiatives, including Commonwell.

[Also: See photos from Day 2 of HIMSS16]

She pulls out an infographic to make her point. As she – a math major – sees it, numbers tell the story.

Epic receives 30 million queries every 30 hours. Commonwell receives 30 million in a lifetime. Epic covers 189 million patients to Commonwell's 3.5 million.

KLAS ranks Epic technology No. 1 for interoperability with a score of 91.4  Commonwell technology ranks sixth with a score of  71.8.

"It's our thing," she says. "We did it. We were the first to do it, we excel at it."

There's a real reason she got started on this quest, she notes. "So, I was really insulted when they tried to position us as not doing interoperability."

Has public perception changed since Epic has been talking about interoperability, especially Epic President Carl Dvorak?

"I hope so," she says.

But, Faulkner is not a one-note executive. She works hard, usually getting home around 10 p.m. after a series of meetings. She is an avid reader, prefers science fiction.

Her idea of a good time is cozying up to the fire, with a good book and hot chocolate. She has the song "Happy Together" playing in her head these days. It was music from her daughter's wedding a little more than a year ago. She's also using it as marketing collateral for interoperability.

"Population Health Turbocharged by the Magic of Epic Interoperability."

She becomes especially animated when she talks about math.

"Code is three things; programming is three things. One, it's mathematics. So,it's millions and millions of lines of math," she says "Two, it is a language. You really have to think in it. You have to be able not to be translating it, but to think in that language and when you decide what you want, you write it as fluently as though you were talking in another language. It has to be art too; good software is art."

"It's math, it's a language and it's art. I loved algebra," she says. "Loved, loved, loved it."

She is proudest of "building the first electronic health record – and by that changing the world," she says.

She was most bold when she insisted that it was critical to wait until the public and lawyers and compliance officers were ready to let the patient record follow the patient everywhere – wherever the patient goes - instead of compromising, just to get started.

"Staff was begging me to just let it get out the door. Just let people do it one to one. I said no that's horrible precedent." It took two years before the first group said OK, and she is good with that. No half measures.

Twitter: @Bernie_HITN