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Epic, IBM Unleash Watson Supercomputer on Electronic Health Records

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

In yet another high-profile partnership for Epic Systems, the healthcare software giant is teaming up with IBM to bring the supercomputing prowess of Watson to the medical records at the Mayo Clinic and beyond.

Epic, based in the Madison, WI, suburb of Verona, has grown into a powerhouse in the electronic health records software industry over the past decade, with about 8,000 employees and $1.8 billion in revenue last year alone. Epic says its software manages the health records for more than half the U.S. population.

Despite its size and reach, Epic usually avoids the spotlight. But it has been more visible over the past year. Last June, Epic partnered with Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) on the Silicon Valley company’s new HealthKit software tool that ties together consumer health and fitness apps. That same month, IBM (NYSE: IBM) and Epic announced they were joining forces to bid on an $11 billion contract to modernize the U.S. Department of Defense’s medical records system.

Now, Epic and Big Blue are teaming up again, along with Rochester, MN-based Mayo Clinic, to bring Watson to electronic health records. The hope is Watson’s cognitive computing power might help analyze patient data more efficiently and generate insights that could lead to better, personalized care.

IBM’s supercomputer captured the public’s attention four years ago by beating two of Jeopardy’s most successful human contestants. Since then, the Armonk, NY-based company has been upgrading Watson and turning it into what IBM says is the first commercially available cognitive computing system. IBM has found uses for Watson in a variety of sectors, including finance, retail, tourism, entertainment, and energy.

Healthcare has also been one of IBM’s top targets for Watson.

In March 2014, IBM announced that the supercomputer would be used by the New York Genome Center to more rapidly analyze its reams of genomic data so it can find better treatment options for patients. IBM has since made similar deals with a number of other medical centers. Watson is also the brains behind an app, CaféWell Concierge, from Denver-based healthcare software startup Welltok. The app gives users “relevant and actionable” health recommendations based on their specific condition and goals, IBM said. IBM and Mayo Clinic are also using Watson to match cancer patients to the right clinical trials.

Meanwhile, the new Epic partnership will allow doctors and nurses to easily share important details about a patient’s condition with Watson. The supercomputer can then access the online “worldwide body of medical knowledge” to “bring forth critical evidence from medical literature and case studies that are most relevant to the patient’s care,” IBM said.

“This is just the first step in our vision to bring more personalized care to individual patients by connecting traditional sources of patient information with the growing pools of dynamic and constantly growing healthcare information,” IBM Watson senior vice president Mike Rhodin said in a press release.

Epic will embed Watson in its medical decision support software using open application program interfaces (APIs). That’s important to note because Epic has been criticized by some industry observers and healthtech entrepreneurs for making it cumbersome for other software companies to build products that link with Epic’s systems.

Whether it’s fair or not, Epic isn’t viewed by some observers as particularly innovative, despite regularly cleaning up in annual industry rankings. Its electronic health records software is based on a programming language developed in the late 1960s, for example.

Seen through that lens, the partnerships with the likes of Apple and IBM are not only opportunities for Epic to boost its reputation, but also to tap other tech companies’ expertise and potentially become more innovative.

“Accessing Watson’s virtual brainpower from the Epic platform is energizing from a creative standpoint,” Epic president Carl Dvorak said in the press release. “We are bringing another level of cognitive computing and augmented intelligence to mainstream healthcare, to improve safety and outcomes for patients globally.”