When Neri Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., H’89, F’98, returned to the MCV Campus in March 2022 as the Brooks-Lower Visiting Professor, it was not an ordinary speaking engagement for the accomplished physician-executive and 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 beloved VCU School of Medicine professors James W. Brooks, M.D., and Richard R. Lower, M.D., in recognition of their enduring impact on students. While Cohen only knew Lower socially and by reputation, Brooks was one of his greatest influences.

Cohen came to VCU in 1989 as a surgical intern, having just completed an M.D.-Ph.D program and post-doctoral research fellowship at 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 his mentor, paving the way for Cohen to become his successor.

“Jim was more than my teacher and boss,” Cohen says. “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.”

As his predecessor eased into retirement, Cohen is proud to have engineered a “gentle landing space” for him. For several years, he asked Brooks to represent the division on medical school committees and help increase its visibility. “Anyone who contributes as much as Jim Brooks deserves to end their career on their own terms, feeling valued for their wisdom and experience as long as possible.”

Cohen left VCU in 2003 for Greater Baltimore Medical Center to serve as head of thoracic surgery. 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,” Cohen says.

With his biophysics and engineering background, he 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 GBMC.

Cohen’s clinical experience combined with his in-depth understanding of technology had unique value, allowing him to be an effective bridge between the two worlds, particularly helping maximize features of Epic’s electronic medical record platform for clinical operations. With Cohen at the helm as chief medical information officer, GBMC won numerous prestigious 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 says. “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 says with excitement.

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.”