Epic Launches App Orchard to Create ‘Easier Developer Experience’

Epic Systems, which sells software for managing health records that is used to care for 190 million patients around the world, has introduced a new program that the company says will help outside healthcare software developers integrate their digital tools with Epic’s.

The program, called App Orchard, aims to make it simpler for developers to connect to customers of Verona, WI-based Epic—most of which are networks of hospitals and clinics—and to each other, says Epic senior vice president Sumit Rana. App Orchard consists of application programming interfaces (APIs), which serve as bridges between Epic tools and other software products; documentation on writing and testing code; technical support from the company; and invitations to participate in developer conferences and hackathons.

“And then … once folks have created applications and they are ready to go, there’s a website where they can list them,” Rana says. He spoke with Xconomy by phone on Tuesday from Orlando, FL, where he is attending the annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference. Epic had previously conducted some pilot programs related to App Orchard, Rana says, but is formally introducing it this week at HIMSS.

Users of Epic’s software can perform tasks like scheduling doctor appointments, documenting information on patients in clinical settings, and sending medical claims to insurers for reimbursement. Still, there are certain types of software, like tools for storing high-resolution medical images, that fall outside of Epic’s bailiwick but need to connect to healthcare providers’ patient records systems to work effectively.

Epic’s plan to create its own marketplace of applications was first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal two years ago. Several months after the company’s plans surfaced, it filed an application to trademark the name “App Orchard.”

Rana says the program is designed to be used by both Epic clients and third parties—typically other healthcare software companies. The original idea that grew into App Orchard was for a platform allowing Epic’s customers to share tools they had built with one another, he says.

“They would come to us and say, ‘Hey, I want to share my innovations with others,’” Rana says. “Sometimes they wanted to charge for it, but most times they wanted to just share with others—give it away for the greater good of patients. [But] there wasn’t really a great mechanism to do so.”

Epic later expanded the scope of the project by bringing third-party organizations into the fold. Rana says part of the reasoning behind that decision was that many healthcare providers who use Epic’s software were already working with outside groups. “And then third parties came directly to us [and] said, ‘We would like to be part of this, too,’” Rana explains.

More than 1,000 different companies have set up connections to Epic’s software, Rana says. While configuring the company’s products to be able to exchange data with outside applications is by no means a new development, leaders at Epic felt that introducing App Orchard could help facilitate a “very developer-friendly and open experience” for building and linking together pieces of software, Rana says.

“It’s not like this is all brand new stuff and all the old stuff goes away,” he says. “This [instead] takes the old stuff and makes it into a sustainable and much easier developer experience. It allows us to be more in touch, give guidance and notifications, and let them know that a new version of Epic is coming so they can think through how their app would work in conjunction with the new version.”

Asked about revenue models, and whether Epic will receive a portion of the fees hospitals and clinics pay to use products listed on App Orchard, Rana says, “we’re still working through those details” and that observers should “stay tuned” for future announcements.

Some critics have charged that Epic’s software is a “closed platform.” However, the company has also had defenders in the press, and has been rated as an industry leader in interoperability, a term that refers to the ability to share data with other systems.

One healthtech startup based near Epic, in Madison, WI, is Healthfinch, which develops software tools to automate routine tasks performed by clinicians who care for patients. Chris Tyne, the company’s vice president of product, says that Healthfinch has successfully integrated its software with Epic’s at a handful of health organizations. Nevertheless, Tyne says he and others at the startup are “really excited” that Epic has launched App Orchard.

“Having a more formal framework to help integrate apps is definitely helpful,” says Tyne, who is also attending HIMSS this week. “It helps gain credibility across the industry, as some of those newer companies come through the works.”

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