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Participants gather at the 2016 Users Group Meeting at Epic Systems.

Photo by SAIYNA BASHIR

Epic Systems, the Verona-based maker of computer-based medical records, seems to be on the cusp of rolling out its own health care-centric version of the iTunes store.

Epic’s App Orchard, which has been years in the making, will be an online marketplace where health care providers can browse through software made by non-Epic developers. All the software featured, ranging from tools for predicting health outcomes to guides on how to talk with patients about cancer treatment, would link up with Epic’s health records platform in some way.

The move is notable in part due to Epic’s reputation regarding outside software makers in the electronic medical record industry. The company is known for building all of its own software organically, and never acquiring the software of others. It has also faced criticisms for being “closed software,” both to external developers looking to connect into Epic’s platform and for patients alike.

The company’s president, Carl Dvorak, said that openness has “always been a part of Epic.” Dvorak, second in command to the company’s famous co-founder and CEO Judy Faulkner, said that the company’s own software will always be top priority, but that creating a gateway for third-party developers isn’t out of character for the company.

“People who build the apps look to fill in the white spaces. They’re not looking to build a replacement piece,” said Dvorak.

By introducing the App Orchard, Epic will join other EMR vendors like Cerner and AthenaHealth in offering app marketplaces or gateways for third parties to use.

Dvorak that things like data visualization tools, apps for analyzing patient information and recommending health decisions, and software for medical devices like pacemakers are examples of ideal candidates for the App Orchard. So far, he said that Epic has fielded interest from about 1,400 developers.

Developers would have to meet rigorous standards set by Epic with regard to things from security, patient safety notifications, and various aspects of how the external applications connect with Epic’s systems.

The store has yet to go live, although the company has been accepting applications for months. A select few developers like Madison’s own Healthfinch — which makes software that automates repetitive tasks within medical records software, such as scheduling lab work and ordering medication refills — have been working with Epic on getting the project off the ground for over a year.

Beth Zuehlke, one of Healthfinch’s vice presidents, said that the advent of the orchard represents a marked change in how Epic interacts with other developers. It has not historically been an accessible company for third parties to work with, she said.

“Over the years, Epic’s been fairly standoffish with external vendors,” she said. “You really had to get customers first … before Epic was interested in talking at all.”

Today, Zuehlke said she’s happy with what she’s seen happening with the app store. She said that Epic has been consistently engaging them, and asking them for feedback about the process.

“I think their intention is right on from where we want them to go,” she said.

Others like Mark Bakken are frustrated with how Epic has handled the orchard. Bakken, a partner with the health care-focused venture capital firm HealthX Ventures and the former president of the massive Epic consulting firm Nordic, said that it’s unacceptable for the company to have taken such a long time to make the product. He noted that initial news of the app store was published in the Wisconsin State Journal in February of 2015.

He said that Epic has been “dragging its feet.”

“I work with startups every day. And if it took them two and a half years to do something, they’d be out of business,” he said.

Bakken also said that he’s not convinced that while the app store gives a veneer of openness, the process of actually getting into the orchard is anything but. Some developers have echoed that frustration, voicing complaints about the opaqueness of the applications process.

Dvorak said that the time that has gone into the development of the orchard is to ensure the security and safety of the system. He also said that the company takes the applications process seriously as a measure of ensuring that software on the store is up to Epic’s standards.

“If I mess up, I’m affecting the health care of a couple hundred million patients,” said Dvorak.

Both Zuellke and Bakken said that in theory, the app store could be a huge boon for developers. For Zuehllke, a big question is whether Epic will devote enough resources to publicizing the store to its clients so that apps on the Orchard actually get visibility.

“Other EMRS actively highlight people on their marketplace,” she said. “To see how, as it actually goes live, how it all plays out ... it will be interesting.”

Bakken, while skeptical of Epic's rollout, readily acknowledges that the premise of a marketplace is an important one. He’s hopeful that the company will address his concerns after it unveils more details about the orchard at the company Users Group Meeting next week.

“It could make Epic the great platform that (Epic CEO Judy Faulkner) and the others wanted it to be,” he said.

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.