Published July 15, 2014
Volume 22, Number 7

Kaiser Exec Enjoys Work, Family & Fun

By Zoe Francis

Neil Cowles is happiest when he is busy, busy, busy.
Neil CowlesThe Kaiser Permanente technology executive works long hours, but he still manages to find time for his kids, his dogs, his favorite sport and even community service.
“I am one of those people who is perpetually busy,” Cowles said with a laugh. “There’s always an opportunity to do more.”
When he is not running the groundbreaking and vast electronic medical record system for Kaiser for all of Northern California, he may be running around a soccer field as an official referee.
“I think I’ve played soccer from the minute I could walk,” the spry 49-year-old said. “It’s a fantastic team sport. It’s one of those sports that you cannot be a great team with just a few individuals. You have to play as a team.”
Cowles referees for the United States Soccer Federation, a gig that takes him to games all over the Bay Area and out to the Central Valley. While he frequently referees at high school and college games, he also enjoys overseeing games for young athletes.
“I love going back to the grassroots of the game and doing (an under 8 or under 10) soccer game,” he said with an edge of excitement. “It’s really fun to go from those highly intensive senior-level soccer games and go to an under-8 boys or girls game to see how it all starts.”
Roots Across the Pond
The hard-working executive developed his love for the sport in his native England, where soccer – or football, as they call it – is practically a national religion. He grew up in Norwich, a large city on the east coast of England. His father was a lineman for the electricity board and his mother was a bookkeeper. Cowles is the middle child between a younger sister and older brother.
As a student, Cowles was always smitten with science. When he finished his junior and senior school studies – similar to America’s K-12 system – he spent another two years specializing in the biology and chemistry in sixth form, the final two years of secondary education.
After completing school in 1983, Cowles went straight into a radiography program at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals, where training is imbedded in the clinical practices.
“I spent the first part of my career in radiography,” he recalled. “It’s a very different and more extensive career in Europe than it is herein the U.S. In the role of the radiographer in Europe, you get more engaged in performing some of the clinical exams. You don’t just take the X-rays. You actually perform ultrasounds and clinical tasks.”
Cowles ultimately got an honors degree from South Bank University in London, a four-year program similar to graduate studies in America.
“I loved the sciences, and the world of radiography really intrigued me,” he said of his career choice. “I wanted to get into a profession where I could engage with people. It enabled me to bring together my interest in science and physics and the ability to work with people in healthcare and get to know people closely.”
To a Land Down Under
His radiography career led him from England to Australia, where he worked in a small outback community called Alice Springs, famously featured in the 1950 book A Town Like Alice.
“It was a fantastic experience,” he said with pure joy in his voice. “I did a temporary position in Alice Springs for three months. I got to work closely with the emergency services there. The nearest major city to Alice Springs was almost 3,000 miles away. It was a great experience to work there. I got to work with some great people.”
After his stint in the outback, Cowles returned to London to work at the Royal Free Hospital, one of the biggest teaching hospitals in the city. It was a move that would lead to a major career change.
“Throughout my time as a radiographer, I had always been interested and involved in the implementation of new technologies,” he explained. “I was approached by one of the leading companies in the UK that was involved in the healthcare IT (information technology) business to work on radiology systems.”
In 1994, Cowles took on an entirely new role as project manager with Shared Medical Systems, a United Kingdom subsidiary of a larger American company based in Philadelphia.
“We developed electronic medical record solutions,” he said. “There is a thread throughout my career working in the clinical setting and then moving into the technical setting. I really enjoyed the business world and the corporate world.”
Within six years. Cowles advanced to being a director of the company, equivalent to a corporate vice president’s job in this country.
“We had operations in a number of different European countries,” he said proudly. “I got exposure to be the European product planner for the company. I started to manage the product portfolio across different countries.”
In 2000, the company was bought by Torex, and Cowles was named technical director for the entire firm, a job similar to chief information officer.
“We were very innovative in that we started the service delivery model for healthcare information technology,” he said. “We started offering the medical record as a service rather than doing local implementations. We hosted and managed people’s software for them rather than them having to build a data center in the hospital. At the time, that was a new model.”
Coming to America
Oracle came knocking on Cowles’ corporate door and lured him to both the company and America in 2006.
“That is how I ended up moving to the U.S.,” he said. “I joined Oracle as a director of healthcare development. I worked for EMEA  -- Europe, Middle East and Africa. In that role, I was responsible for the product strategy within the European countries we were operating. That gave me the opportunity to travel and work in places like Saudi Arabia and South Africa. I got a number of international business experiences.”
Oddly enough, Cowles first worked in America at Oracle’s new offices in Hacienda after the international giant had just taken over PeopleSoft.
“When I moved to the U.S. in 2004, Oracle had just completed the acquisition of PeopleSoft,” he said. “My office was in building F in (Hacienda) on the third floor, about two doors down from where I joined Kaiser six years later.”
While Cowles enjoyed his work at Oracle, the American dream of joining a startup was enough of a draw that he left in 2007 to be CEO of the new Tolven healthcare solutions firm.
“That was one of the most challenging times in the financial sector,” he recalled. “We managed to survive through the (financial) crash.”
Cowles was once again courted for a new job when Kaiser Permanente approached him in 2012 to lead the company’s innovative information technology department. His official title is executive director of KP HealthConnect Business Operations for Northern California.
“One of the things that really attracted me about Kaiser was the integrated care delivery system it provided,” he said. “This gave me a great opportunity to work in an organization that delivered care as well as managed the infrastructure and technology. I have the ability to maintain and service one of the most prestigious medical records in the world.”
The system allows Kaiser’s 3.2 million Northern California members to manage their healthcare online, including accessing records, making appointments, refilling prescriptions, getting test results and even contacting physicians.
“It’s a more efficient way for our members to engage and get access to the services we offer,” he said. “It’s a differentiator for us in the marketplace. Kaiser is far more mature in its use of this type of technology.”
“My goal is really to look at how we can continue to evolve and extend the electronic medical record solution that we have here to deliver and improve care to our members,” he added. “Technology improves healthcare in a number of ways. There are still a number of organizations out there that have paper charts. As you can imagine, paper gets lost, handwriting can’t be read. All of that goes away when you have electronic records. You can use the data to start predicting or advising people around that care. It’s more efficient.”
While Cowles’ executive position keeps him busy, he manages to find time for his two children – 12-year-old Thomas and 10-year-old Paige –both avid soccer players like their dad. He served for four years on the board at the Livermore Valley Charter School his kids attend and was active in developing that school’s new campus.
He also enjoys spending time with his two vizslas, Cassie and Cora, who are skilled at highly advanced canine nose work. It is a type of sport in which dogs are trained to detect specific scents.
“I’ve spent three years taking my dogs to class to teach them to search for scents,” he said. “It’s just a hobby. They love it. It keeps them happy and keeps them alert.”
Cowles’ busy life adds to the difficulty of staying close to his family on a different continent, but the Pleasanton resident truly enjoys calling California home.
“I have never looked back,” he said. “I really enjoy living out here. It’s a long way from home. England will always be a major part of my life, but I really enjoy living in the Tri-Valley.”
Learn more about Kaiser Permanente at kp.org.


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