Epic Systems Campus 2 (copy)

Campus 2 at Epic Systems in Verona.

Mike DeVries -- The Capital Times archives

Five competitors of Verona-based Epic Systems Corp. have formed an alliance to share patient health data — and Epic was left out.

The announcement about creation of the CommonWell Health Alliance came Monday at an industry conference in New Orleans.

Its goal has been discussed by the industry, including Epic co-founder Judy Faulkner, for years: How to let different health care providers serving an individual patient access each other's data to coordinate care.

McKesson Corp., Cerner Corp., Allscripts, athenahealth and Greenway Medical Technologies formed the alliance. John Hammergren, chairman and chief executive of McKesson, called the alliance "an inflection point in health care, with key industry leaders coming together."

Said Epic president Carl Dvorak: "We were not invited to join this thing prior to this announcement."

Dvorak said he suspects the announcement was a marketing ploy. "I really do think it was, in part, an alliance put together to create a market perception of leadership, when in fact, the organizations involved are actually behind ... in interoperability," he said.

Goal: Serve patients

Epic is the largest player in the electronic health records industry. About 49 percent of U.S. patients will be on Epic's records when all of the company's contracted customers have their systems operating, said spokeswoman Barbara Hernandez. Epic has 6,300 employees and had $1.5 billion in 2012 revenue.

For patients, giving health care facilities access to share their records could lead to better care. For example, if a Wisconsin resident gets injured on vacation in Florida, the Florida clinic can get information about the patient's health history and also can send details about the injury back to the resident's clinic in Wisconsin.

Doctors and hospitals have been asking vendors to develop systems that would allow a patient information exchange "and this seems to be one way that vendors are listening to their customers," said Peter Ashkenaz, spokesman for the federal Office of National Coordinator for Health IT. He declined to comment about Epic's lack of involvement. "The goal is to make sure patients are well served," he said.

The new alliance may be a tool for its rivals to compete with Epic, which is focused on big hospital systems, an analyst told Bloomberg in a report this week.

"Epic has a tremendous amount of momentum," said Eric Coldwell of Robert W. Baird & Co. in Chicago. Its competitors want to make their systems easier to work with and want to help patients, "but there's a business reason to do this, too," he said.

Epic downplays alliance

Dvorak said he doesn't think CommonWell will hurt Epic. "I don't think it will take anything away from us," he said.

Dvorak said Epic already has agreements of its own with more than 20 organizations, including two companies in the alliance, Cerner and Greenway Medical. About 3.4 million documents a month flow into or out of Epic's systems each month, he said, about one-third of them involving non-Epic facilities. They are able to communicate electronically, based on national standards.

"We have always been open to connect with anybody using national standards," Dvorak said.

He said his concern is that the alliance will set up its own, separate standards.

"The (health care) world will likely not tolerate a proprietary set of standards from an exclusive set of vendors. We need to pull together," Dvorak said.

Epic is not the only big player left out of the alliance. Eclipsys, another big electronic health records system, is not part of it either. Patricia Flatley Brennan, UW-Madison professor of nursing and industrial engineering and former president of the American Medical Informatics Association, called that "politically unusual." In fact, more than 200 companies are in the electronic medical records field, she said.

"I am very, very excited to see any attempt for any collaboration by major players," Brennan said. But she added, "I have a hard time imagining that any solution that doesn't involve everyone is likely to work."

McKesson CEO Hammergren said Epic and others are welcome to join the alliance. In a news conference announcing the organization on Monday, Hammergren was asked if he had reached out to Epic’s Faulkner.

“Everybody in the industry will be invited or has been invited to participate in this,” Hammergren said. The five companies are “not an exclusive group, just the first of many.”