Get to know a CEO: Joanne Smith, CEO of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab

(Published Aug. 31, 2019)

By Jesse Wright

Q: To start with, could you tell me a little bit about your background? I know you went to undergrad in Michigan; did you grow up there? When did medicine begin to interest you and at what point did you decide to focus on rehabilitation? I noticed by the time you did your residency, you were already practicing in the field of rehabilitation, and I’m curious what professional challenges appealed to you in the field.

A: Yes, I grew up in Michigan and went to undergrad and medical school there. My sister was a nurse, and I considered that path, but ultimately decided to become a doctor. Nursing is highly structured, and I needed to interact with patients in a way that was less process-based and more discovery-based. So I went to med school. I’ll never forget assisting an orthopedic surgeon on a visit to a free clinic during my elective rotation in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PMR). Patients there gifted me with insight — I realized they didn’t want conformist solutions, they wanted better outcomes. They want to live their best, happiest and most independent lives. This insight would drive my calling and my career.

Q: Did you immediately notice the problems with rehabilitation medicine—the ones you would later come to address through Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, or did your opinions and views change over time?

As someone with a scientist’s drive for solving problems, early on I saw a lack of research advancing this field. However, now we are living in a time of momentous, rapid convergence of the sciences, technology, biologics and engineering. As leaders, it is incumbent upon us at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab to harness this synergy. Thus, my vision was born to structurally and philosophically compel collaboration between medicine and science. Our success, which is already apparent in helping patients achieve better outcomes, is not only raising the bar for our field, but also for the practice of medicine.

Q: What inspired you to get an MBA? Being a physician is notoriously time consuming and stressful and it’s a passion for most doctors. Why get into the business side of things? More specifically, what interested you in being a CEO?

A: I didn’t plan to earn my MBA, but when I was a young physician at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), my mentor asked me to serve as a medical consultant for the University of Chicago Hospitals. There, I got a bird’s-eye view of the business and operations side of medicine. I observed that leading physicians in acute “cure-based” medicine did not always understand the rehabilitation work of the post-acute sector. This experience led me to the MBA program at University of Chicago Booth School of Business. As a physician, I loved treating my patients, but as CEO of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, I know that I can have a much greater impact, not only for our patients, but also for the people who need us all over the world.

Q: In addition to being a CEO, I understand you’re still on the medical faculty at Northwestern’s school of medicine. Where do you find the time to do all of this? What keeps you in academia? I would assume there’s more than enough to fill the days as CEO of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab?

A: We are doing what no one else is doing, and thus have a responsibility to be a resource to the world. It’s a privilege to share our ever-growing expertise and discovery, and that’s why I speak frequently nationally and internationally before thought leaders in healthcare and beyond.  

Q: The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab has long been noted as one of the world’s leading providers of rehabilitation services due, in no small part, to your view that medical providers should dismiss the prefix dis- in disability and focus instead on helping the patient function in a way that makes sense to them as opposed to forcing patients to conform to expectations/social preferences of those around them. This seems nothing short of a radical idea, considering until very recently, people with severe disabilities were literally hidden away from public view in various way, though often with the best of intentions. Is this indeed as radical as it seems?

A: Yes, it’s a radical idea. Even more radical is our model that integrates doctors and therapists together with researchers in the same space so that “cross-pollination” can lead to greater innovation. Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is the first-ever translational research hospital in which clinicians and scientists collaborate side by side with patients 24/7. In our revolutionary model, we have shifted the focus from the process of rehabilitation to the outcome — ability. The result? Better, faster recoveries for the patients we serve.

Q: Of course, this was the topic of your Aspen Ideas Festival essay and you mentioned changing the vernacular in medicine and in treatment settings (and I understand that’s why the lab was renamed the AbilityLab, as opposed to the former Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) but this issue seems bigger than a CEO or a physician or even a research hospital. It seems like you’re trying to change public opinion, or the opinion of everyone who isn’t or has never been through rehabilitation. Is this indeed the goal?

A: Our biggest goal is advancing human ability. Ability is function. That’s why we’ve invested so significantly in speeding discovery and innovation — all focused solely on helping patients achieve better outcomes, faster. The world is watching and taking note.

Q: If so, that seems perhaps a bit Sisyphean and maybe even more ambitious than leading one of the world’s best research hospitals, though I’m guessing you wouldn’t agree with that?

A: Patients and families don’t come to us for the status quo. They expect more from us, and everyone here — from clinicians, scientists and staff to executives — is passionate about helping others by solving big problems. I’ve never shied away from a challenge, and that attitude is part of our culture. It’s no accident that we invented the world’s first thought-controlled bionic arm, among many other advancements and innovations. Every one of our scientists works on projects that will directly benefit one (or more) of our patient populations.

Q: I ask because from an outside perspective it seems like public option of people with disabilities seems almost regressive at time. Last year the House passed the ADA Education and Reform Act, which would have significantly weakened the ADA and made it harder for people with disabilities to get access to public facilities and to sue violators. What did that mean for you? What does that say about public opinion of people with disabilities?

A: I keep a quote by Goethe close at hand: “The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.” We need a new vernacular. Our language evolves as our society grows more informed, compassionate and inclusive. We are not waiting for that change to happen, we are driving it. Actually, our patients are driving it.

Q: How would you suggest doctors and other advocates change public perception and public opinion?

A: Focus on what people can do, not what they can’t. At Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, we’re harnessing the power of science and best-in-class clinical care to advance human ability.

Q: Finally, getting back to the day to day at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and maybe ending on a more positive note, is there any new research that looks promising you’d like to share? What do we have to look forward to?

A: Two years into our novel experiment of embedding science into the clinical environment, we’re taking advantage of a convergence of disciplines and discovery to leapfrog our understanding of the human brain. We are using multiple modalities to exploit the brain’s potential. By focusing on outcomes, we’re getting closer to finding cures for today’s most vexing brain injuries and diseases.