The River of Life: A Q&A with Judy Faulkner, Founder & CEO of Epic, Honorary Speaker for 49th Commencement Ceremony

The 2021 Rush University Commencement speaker shares her thoughts on glass ceilings, the digital divide and the future of health care
Judy Faulkner, Founder & CEO of Epic

Judy Faulkner, MS, the honorary speaker for this year’s commencement ceremony, is the CEO and founder of Epic, a health care software company. Epic develops software to help people get well, help people stay well, and help future generations be healthier.

Judy launched Epic in 1979 in the basement of an apartment house with $70,000 in start-up money and two half-time assistants. Without venture capital or going public, Epic has since grown to become a multibillion-dollar company with roughly 10,000 employees. In February, for the eleventh straight year, Epic was ranked first for Overall Software Suite in the KLAS research firm’s Best in KLAS 2021 Software & Services report.

More than 250 million patients worldwide and more than half of all U.S. patients have a current electronic record in Epic.

Judy ranked second in Forbes’ 2020 list of Self-Made Women and on Forbes’ lists of 100 Most Powerful Women and the Forbes 400. Judy has also signed the Giving Pledge stating that 99% of her assets will go to philanthropy.

At a time of huge transformation in health care this is an incredible opportunity to hear from Judy, who has a reputation as the most powerful woman in healthcare IT and who led her company in countless efforts to stand up testing sites, expand telehealth capabilities and close gaps in healthcare delivery throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

We talked to Judy about the challenges Epic faced during COVID-19, trends she predicts for the future of health care and advice for our students.


As someone who’s spent a lot of time working with top-level health system executives and clinical leaders, do you have any advice for our students on what skills you see as necessary for being successful leaders in health care? What’s your personal leadership philosophy?

When I think of leaders I think of people who can be assertive: a person who will speak up during a meeting to voice disagreement rather than waiting until after the meeting ends to say, “I didn’t agree with that at all.”

If you want to be a strong leader or a manager you can’t always want to be liked. You need to realize what you have to do and do it. You need to be willing to try things and take risks. You’ll want respect realizing that doesn’t mean you’ll be adored.

If you’re a leader you’re someone who can create your own structure – you’ll be able to define what you need to do instead of waiting to be told what to do.

Part of my leadership philosophy is that it’s important to get feedback from others before making a decision. But just because you get others’ opinions doesn’t mean it’s a democracy. You gather all the information but in the end you’re the leader and it’s your decision.

You’re known as one of the most influential people in health IT – and more specifically, the most influential woman in health IT. Do you have any advice about navigating a field in which your background or identity varies from most of your colleagues? Have you ever seen being “different” as an advantage?

In the early 70s health IT was often an old boys’ network and that’s just how things were. But ultimately, CIOs wanted software that worked. My team and I weren’t good at being part of the old boy network but we made software that worked.

At early technical conferences I might have been one of four women in attendance, and every single man knew the four women. I could give a CIO who attended a call, even if we didn’t have previous connections, and he’d know who I or any of the women were. I see it as an advantage.

Being different is great and a lot of it is in your head. If you always see a glass ceiling it’s always going to be there. Whether you use differences as a disadvantage or as a good thing is determined a lot by how you look at life.

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, what are a few of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in regard to serving health care systems and their patients in somewhat chaotic, new scenarios?

We learned how much there was to do to help fight COVID.

During the pandemic thousands of people needed training to use telehealth, EHRs had to be extended to thousands of extra beds, alternative care sites like McCormick Place and USNS Comfort were installed with an EHR system, and now software helps clinicians administer millions of vaccines daily.

People stepped up to take on projects like drive-thru testing sites and rapid installs of software to help fight COVID or to help administer vaccines. I was really impressed by the ability of staff in health IT to come up with ideas and execute on them independently and quickly.

At Rush University, health equity is a priority in education and practice. Our students, as well as our faculty spend a lot of time volunteering, conducting research on or working with outreach programs to improve health outcomes for underserved populations.

How do you see health IT helping institutions like Rush serve those communities – both specifically EHRs like Epic and more generally? Do you have any advice for how our students, and our university, should start to prepare for that future?

It may get worse because of the digital divide coming up. You have to have a smart phone – if you don’t have one you’re going to be outside of the health care world. I don’t know the answer to solving the digital divide. More effort will need to be put into expanding what we can do with outreach programs.

Some health systems are going into underserved neighborhoods specifically to address disparities in COVID-19 vaccinations. Instead of having people coming to their sites for vaccinations, they’re going out to the patients.

There’s going to have to be more of that kind of thinking, “How do we take health care to people instead of having them come to us?”

One of Rush’s core values is collaboration. At the university, we strive to bring students together across colleges in both academic and extra-curricular settings.

As one of the leading EHR vendors, Epic is often tasked with working with stakeholders across fields (government, health care, non-profits, etc.) as well as cultures and geographies. Do you have any advice for our students about how to forge diverse connections and make those partnerships work?

Be curious. There’s so much to learn from everyone. Talk with folks and ask questions. Travel everywhere you can and enjoy all your new experiences.

Is there any advice you wish someone would’ve given you when you were about to leave school and embark on your career?

Pay more attention to your parents. I was so focused on my work, I wish I had paid more attention to them.

Think for yourself, don’t follow what everybody else is doing. Even if you end up in a field that’s different than what you studied, you’ve learned to think critically. Use that.

I also believe the river of life takes you places. Explore each one and do all you can to make each delightful.