Epic Seeks to Join Alexa, Siri as Software You Can Chat With

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

Epic Systems may soon add its name to the list of companies with virtual assistant software that people can give instructions to and get information from. But those who say, ‘Hey Epic’ to initiate a man-to-machine conversation won’t be your average consumers. Instead, they’ll be doctors, nurses, and others who use the Verona, WI-based company’s healthcare software to do their jobs.

Epic is holding its annual Users Group Meeting this week, a conference that brings 9,000 employees from hospitals and clinics that use Epic’s patient records software to its corporate campus, according to company estimates. On Tuesday, following founder and CEO Judy Faulkner’s opening address, a handful of leaders at Epic showed off new features and integrations the company has in the works. Some of these new tools are already built into the soon-to-be-released 2018 version of Epic’s software, while others are a bit further out on the horizon.

The conference has a “World of Wizards” theme this year. In keeping with that theme, one demonstration involved a fictional patient, Angus Pyramus, who visits a doctor after transforming himself into a mule. The doctor, who was played by real-life physician and Epic employee Chris Mast, used a prototype of Epic’s virtual assistant to treat Pyramus.

“Hey Epic, open my note for Mr. Pyramus using the transformation reversal template,” Mast said.

The large screens above the stage displayed how Epic’s software translates directions into system actions. For instance, it documented Mast’s assessment of the patient (“arrested transformation”), as well as the doctor’s instructions for Pyramus to treat the condition and return for another visit in a week. After each verbal command—opening a note, documenting physical findings, and entering orders into the system—the device running Epic’s software sounded a tone to indicate it received Mast’s directive.

“Hey Epic, sign that visit,” Mast said, completing the last step. He then gave a final word of advice to Pyramus. “In the future, just remember to master the reversal spell before you practice a transformation, okay?”

Meanwhile, Epic is also working to give some of the 190 million patients who have a current medical record in its software the ability to receive information about—and take actions related to—their health through virtual assistants like Amazon’s (NASDAQ: AMZN) Echo and Echo Dot (those are the ones users address as “Alexa” by default). That functionality, which is likely to arrive before Epic makes it possible for doctors to document entire patient visits using only their voices, is part of a trend of healthcare organizations working to engage patients outside the four walls of a hospital or clinic.

The theme of Verona, WI-based Epic Systems’ 2017 Users Group Meeting is “World of Wizards.” Photo courtesy of Epic Systems.

Epic president Carl Dvorak said hospitals can use the company’s software to save time and money by partially offloading appointment scheduling and other tasks to patients. Patients have used MyChart to schedule nearly 10 million appointments with their care providers, said Mark Lipsky, a division manager at Epic.

More than 68 million people now have accounts on MyChart, one of Epic’s patient-facing products, according to Janet Campbell, the company’s vice president of patient engagement.

Dvorak said patients are increasingly using MyChart to pay their medical bills.

“Patients are so gullible—they do it for free,” joked Dvorak. Online bill pay “means no statement was printed, no envelope was stuffed, no postage meter was stamped,” he told the audience. “These are tools that are designed to help you take cost out of the equation of healthcare.”

MyChart, a so-called “patient portal” app, also allows users to view lab test results and share their health records with physicians who use software that can’t communicate with Epic’s.

Another MyChart feature is the ability to request refills of medications patients are taking. According to Epic, they’ll soon be able to do this with the help of virtual assistants sold by Amazon and Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL).

On stage Tuesday, Epic employee Maggie Stack carried out a conversation with a custom-built “Echo Cauldron” device, which like Amazon’s devices had blue lights along its outer rim and answered to “Alexa.”

“Alexa, tell MyChart to review my medications,” Stack said, to which the device responded, “You have three prescriptions due for refills. Should I request a refill out of the [local] apothecary?”

Stack said, “Yes, Alexa,” then asked the machine how close she was to her step goal for that day. (Epic’s tools can be set up to integrate with Apple’s HealthKit software so that doctors can see information collected by the “wearable” electronic devices their patients walk around with all day.)

As part of its effort to integrate MyChart with Amazon and Google’s virtual assistants, Epic is working to better connect its assistant software with devices such as Echo and Google Home, Stack said.

Seth Howard, a product development lead at Epic, introduced the demo involving the patient who needed help after turning himself into a mule. To tee up the demonstration, Howard said, “Let’s look at how the physician of the future will interact with technology simply using voice.”

While it’s not clear how close the scenario depicted on stage is to becoming reality, Howard noted that in Epic’s upcoming 2018 release, users will be able to complete assessments and record patients’ vital signs using just their voices.

Not every futuristic concept Epic introduces during its Users Group Meeting presentations comes to fruition, but many from past events have, and are being used to care for patients today, said Sumit Rana, senior vice president of research and development at Epic.

Chris Longhurst, chief information officer at UC San Diego Health, said he feels that Epic “does a good job of showing things that are actively being worked on in development, and not vaporware.” However, he added that some of the future possibilities Epic hinted at on Tuesday are likely more conceptual than concrete—for now, at least.

UC San Diego Health has held hackathons aimed at helping software developers advance their ideas for new products, Longhurst said. Some participants at these events have worked on ways to take actions in UCSD Health’s Epic records system through verbal instructions to a virtual assistant, he said.

“I don’t think we’re necessarily very far from what was shown” by Epic on Tuesday, Longhurst said.