Business Women Who Lead

Tara Cowling, Founder of Medlior on Conducting Impactful Health Research

After embarking on an impressive educational journey abroad including studying at the University of Oxford, Tara Cowling went on to work in a number of research based roles in Canada and the UK.

Eventually, Cowling ended up in Alberta working for Alberta Health Services (AHS) where she would lead projects to design surveys, collect data, analyze it, and report it when requests for data collection would come from the National Health Services. 

However, she was dissatisfied and wondered how much her work at AHS was being valued. Continuing to take on freelance projects, in 2008 she incorporated her consulting business as Medlior Health Outcomes Research Ltd. 

“I found, a lot of the work with health services to be very frustrating, just in terms of not understanding what was the impact of my work. Did it matter? Was anybody even reading my reports? Comparatively with the consulting work, people really cared. They questioned your work, they pushed back on it. So, that to me was much more exciting,” said Cowling. 

In 2012, Cowling made the decision to leave AHS to fully commit to Medlior and take on bigger projects. An independent Canadian research organization, Medlior has seasoned biostatisticians and epidemiologists who use de-identified patient data from provincial health systems to address a variety of research questions. 

Since Cowling first started, the company has grown to a team of 15 people and about 40 contractors. All of whom hold advanced degrees paired with having relevant work experience from academia, the health system, consulting and/or the pharmaceutical industry providing a clear advantage in conducting health outcomes research.

Medlior evaluates and observes the safety and effectiveness of therapies, explores the burden of disease, informs health technology assessments, and much more. “We’ve seen projects we’ve worked on pulling together evidence and that has led to positive decisions to put a drug on the market, so that patients can have that drug,” said Cowling.

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The Future of Medlior

Medlior not only acts as a service provider, but is now generating their own research questions. The group wants to continue to do research that informs policy and patient care, working towards improving the healthcare system and making an impact.

In collaboration with Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary, Medlior is working with students as part of their course in computer science and engineering. The company is helping them to develop an algorithm to do natural language processing of text-based lab results by transforming coded results. Ultimately, developing a tool for physicians to be able to deduce what the results are for a particular patient without extensive work.Cowling explains that this is important for a lot of the gene therapies that are coming out. “It’s going to be more accurate, it’s going to be faster, and make physician lives a lot easier.”

Another project Medlior has proposed is with Alberta Health Services and Alberta Cancer Foundation to look at stratifying cancer survivors into high risk and low risk groups. The cost savings to the health system could be massive. Cowling shares that in the UK they showed that if they took this type of approach, they could save 90 million pounds a year.

Women in Health Research

Cowling admits that 90% of Medlior’s applicants are women, noting that the health research field seems to be dominated by females and that a number of socio-economic factors must come into play. 

Being organized while having multiple projects on the go and being effective with their time are just a few of the strengths she believes women bring to the table in the research field. According to Cowling, the team at Medlior is highly collaborative and individual acknowledgement isn’t much of a priority. “I think that comes very naturally to women to be able to share the load and work together,” said Cowling. 

Cowling explores some of the challenges female entrepreneurs may face. In some cases, it’s not having a voice to offer an opinion because women are not necessarily seen in the same light as a male would be, even though they have the exact same resume. Cowling also cites how women are not very self-promoting as another reason they may be left out of the conversation.

“I’ve seen a lot of men in my industry who have tried and failed to set up consultancies and I know they’ve looked at me like, how have you done it? Truthfully, it’s because my ego has nothing to do with it. I want to do this work and I want to do a good job,” said Cowling.

Although, Cowling is quick to explain that she doesn’t believe it to be an age thing, older men in their 50s and 60s have given her opportunities. She believes it’s a mentality where men who are in powerful positions can remove barriers to listen to women and give them opportunities.

“I have also been treated very unfairly by other women,” said Cowling. Referring to experiences where women have been unsupportive and even competitive. She has faced criticism from other women who have expressed their belief that she is too young to have accrued the amount of success she has. 

However, Cowling credits the province of Alberta with being very entrepreneurial and business oriented. She notes that female business ownership in Alberta is very high because so many men are in oil and gas. A lot of the small businesses especially, seem to be female owned.

Earlier this year, Cowling was awarded the Women’s Entrepreneurship Fund by the Government of Canada. A $100,000 fund that provides support to women to grow their businesses and facilitate their pursuit of opportunities in markets abroad. She is using the fund to boost marketing, hire more staff, and grow infrastructure.