Tracing the roots of major health IT players: The meaning behind 6 company names

Health IT is an industry with many big names, but where do these names come from? From the Greek gods to a love affair with language, here is the history and inspiration behind six household names in health IT.

athenahealth (Watertown, Mass.)

Meaning: The name 'athenahealth' can be traced back to a clinic co-founded by Jonathan Bush, now CEO of the company, and Todd Park. The clinic's name was derived from the Greek goddess Athena.

What leadership has to say: "The name athenahealth is an homage to Athena Women's Health, the birthing clinic Todd Park and I founded in San Diego, to reinvent the childbirth experience with more midwives, more focus on mothers and best practices driven by statistics. We named the clinic after the Greek goddess Athena, who symbolizes wisdom, inspiration and courage. Our goal was to produce better clinical outcomes and a superior experience for mothers at a lower cost. We accomplished the first two, but couldn't get a handle on our revenue cycle. That eventually led us to try to fix the billing process for other practices in our situation…and the health IT company athenahealth was born," says Mr. Bush.

Cerner (Kansas City, Mo.)

Meaning: Cerner, originally named PGI, was founded by Neal Patterson, Cliff Illig and Paul Gorup in 1979. In 1984, the company assumed its current — and now widely recognized — name. The company's founders drew on several Romance languages to find a name they felt to be more meaningful. Cerner can be traced back to the Latin word "cernere," which has meanings including "to separate," "to sift" and "to discern." In Spanish, "cerner" can mean both "to sift" and " to blossom."

What leadership has to say: "The meaning of the name is aimed right at the heart of what we do as a clinically focused IT and healthcare company. In the 1980s, it was all about helping clinicians access the mountain of information generated by healthcare processes to find the most relevant information. Fast forward three decades and the sphere of scientific, clinical and even patient-generated data has only grown larger. There's a world of big data, and it's our job to create solutions that sift through it at high speed and shine a light on what is truly meaningful and valuable to improve health," says Zane Burke, president of Cerner.

CommonWell Health Alliance (Boston)

Meaning: CommonWell Health Alliance's name can be broken down into four parts. "Common" relates to the shared, standard services providers and patients could use to access health data. "Well" is a nod to the organization's efforts to help patients stay well. "By connecting those two words, we were ensuring that we always ensured the patient and their wellbeing were at the center of our services," says Jennifer Smith, marketing chair of CommonWell Health Alliance.

She continues to say "Health" and keeping people healthy is, again, the underlying goal of the organization. "Alliance" refers to the group of members who share the organization's mission and encapsulate the group's values of partnerships, transparency, accountability, inclusiveness and integrity.

What leadership has to say: "CommonWell Health Alliance was formed as a collaborative effort of health IT vendors who shared a similar vision of improving the delivery of healthcare through interoperability across disparate providers, organizations and geographies," Ms. Smith says. "As such, we looked to create a name that represented our shared vision and work effort to keep people healthy and help patients get well when they did get sick."

Epic (Verona, Wis.)

Meaning: Epic founder and CEO Judy Faulkner wrote the underlying software infrastructure for the major EHR company in the mid-1970s. At the time she was a programmer who had developed a clinical data management system; she had no plans to start a company. But, her clients had different ideas. After repeated requests, Ms. Faulkner agreed to create a company around the system she had developed. During a preliminary meeting at her home, one of the company's original clients pulled a dictionary off the and shelf looked up the definition of "epic": "the glorious accounts of a nation's events."  The group liked the name, and it would be the story of a patient, not of a nation. Though the system has evolved to include not a single line of the original code, the Epic name endures and remains one of the most talked-about companies in health IT.

What leadership has to say: "I think [the name] is perfect. It is an Iliad or an Odyssey; it is the story of the patient," Ms. Faulkner says. "When we had a lightweight version of Epic we called it Sonnet. The tablet version was named Canto, the smartphone version is named Haiku. We are keeping the literary theme alive. I was a math major in undergraduate school and computer science major in graduate school, but during my undergraduate time I was an English minor. I think it is important that computer scientists can be seen as literate, too."

IBM Watson (New York City)

Meaning: The Watson name holds many significant meanings for IBM. Today, it is most known for IBM's Jeopardy!-winning cognitive computing technology, but it also represents an IBM business unit, an IBM Research lab, and the company’s founder, Thomas J. Watson. He was also the author of IBM's famous motto, "Think," which makes him an even more appropriate namesake for a system whose job it is to mimic the human cognitive process. Because Watson is meant to serve as a smart assistant to human experts, Sherlock Holmes' able sidekick, Dr. Watson, is another namesake of the Watson system.

What leadership has to say: "We are proud of the work we are doing with our partners to apply Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities to some of healthcare’s greatest challenges, from cancer treatment to genomic medicine and population health management," says Bill Evans, chief marketing officer of IBM Watson Health. "Thomas Watson founded IBM with a vision that has grown in to something very special and far beyond anything he and his colleagues could have imagined back in 1911. IBM named Watson after him, not only to honor a great man on the centennial of the company he created, but also to pay tribute to the human side of the technology. Like Thomas Watson Jr. himself once famously stated, 'our machines should be nothing more than tools for extending the powers of the human beings who use them.' In medicine, it is our goal to be an essential tool for doctors."

Nuance (Burlington, Mass.)

Meaning: Nuance Communications began with a focus on speech recognition and language understanding technology. The name signifies the technology's ability to understand the nuances, such as context and intent, in the language people use when communicating.

What leadership has to say: "It's the subtlety of language and expression, something we specialize in at Nuance, that provides the accuracy of our solutions and ease of use for our customers," says Ann Joyal, director of corporate communications for Nuance's healthcare division. "We understand the 'nuances' between how people communicate, whether they are physicians who use special medical vocabularies to dictate long patient notes or a consumer using a smartphone to ask for the nearest coffee shop."

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