Neri Cohen standing with his arms crossed in a hallway
Neri Cohen, M.D., Ph.D. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Digital health expert and alum returns to VCU as Brooks-Lower Visiting Professor

Neri Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., has been at the forefront of integrating technology into clinical care, using computers to streamline his practice even before electronic medical records became standard.

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When Neri Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., returned to the MCV Campus of Virginia Commonwealth University last month as the Brooks-Lower Visiting Professor, it was not an ordinary speaking engagement for the president of the Center for Healthcare Innovation.

It was a homecoming in the truest sense of the word — a return to the institution that fostered his love of health care innovation. The opportunity to give a lecture at grand rounds, named in part for his mentor, was a chance to visit the city he called home for an important chapter of his life.

The Brooks-Lower Grand Rounds Lecture is named for VCU School of Medicine professors James W. Brooks, M.D., and Richard R. Lower, M.D., in recognition of their enduring impact on students. Brooks was one of Cohen’s greatest influences.

Cohen came to VCU in 1989 as a surgical intern, having just completed an M.D.-Ph.D. program and postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Maryland. He was lured by the reputation of the general surgery and cardiothoracic surgery programs and the promise of ample time for research. He met Brooks during his internship and later worked closely with him during his residency and fellowship. Brooks became Cohen’s mentor.

“Jim [Brooks] was more than my teacher and boss,” Cohen said. “He was my mentor, an additional father figure and the person that taught me what it meant to be a southern gentleman surgeon — bringing humanity, empathy and caring to clinical care.”

Cohen left VCU in 2003 to serve as head of thoracic surgery at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. In 2018, Cohen took his career in a new direction. “I knew that digital health would be my exit strategy when I was ready to leave surgery,” he said.

With his biophysics and engineering background, Cohen had always been on the forefront of integrating technology into clinical care, using computers to streamline his practice even before electronic medical records became standard. Leveraging this strength, he moved into a full-time career in informatics and digital health to lead the integration of clinical operations and technology at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

Cohen’s clinical experience combined with his in-depth understanding of technology allowed him to be an effective bridge between the two worlds, particularly helping maximize features of the electronic medical record platform for clinical operations. With Cohen at the helm as chief medical information officer, Greater Baltimore Medical Center won numerous awards for leveraging data and technology to improve outcomes.

Cohen followed his passion for driving innovation in health care to his current role at the Center for Healthcare Innovation, a nonprofit that identifies promising concepts at their infancy and helps fund their testing. Creating a better patient experience and streamlining health care processes to achieve better outcomes and return joy to the practice of medicine are top priorities as he evaluates new ideas.

“Physicians cannot deliver quality, empathetic care without technology — but most electronic medical record systems were not designed with good clinical care as their basis. Meeting regulatory requirements and bridging the gap between clinical and administrative languages creates extra labor,” Cohen said. “My goal is to shift that calculus — leveraging technology to liberate clinicians to do what they went into medicine for — caring, empathy and healing.”

Cohen is optimistic about emerging technology that could advance this goal, including artificial intelligence and voice recognition software used at the point of service that can translate the clinical interaction between patient and provider into the administrative language needed for compliance, billing and regulations. “The future is much closer than we think,” he said.

While Cohen treasures his years working directly with patients, he feels equally gratified helping ease both patient disease and physician workload on a much larger scale. He eagerly shared his enthusiasm for the future of health care technology — and reflected on his transformative time at VCU — during the Brooks-Lower Grand Rounds Lecture on March 31. “It was a very special homecoming.”