Dr Smith speaking at naming event


Advancing Human Ability with Dr. Joanne C. Smith

Posted By Ann Marie Scheidler


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Nearly 10 years ago, after Dr. Joanne Smith was unexpectedly tapped for the top job as president and chief executive officer of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), she intuitively knew the hospital needed to redefine its mission.

“When I became CEO, people began talking to me differently than they had when I was an attending physician,” explains Dr. Smith, a long-time Hinsdale resident. This shift led her to also begin thinking differently about health care.

Rehabilitation is a process and a great one—one that we knew how to do really well at RIC. But it’s not an outcome. I wanted our processes to have an end effect on the patient.

Dr. Joanne Smith, CEO


One incident she recalls very vividly as a catalyst for this new approach involved a patient whose parents were preparing to take him home after he had spent months at RIC recovering from a brain injury.

“As they were leaving, the mother teared up and told me that they wanted me to add their son’s name to the list of people we could care for when we had a cure for his condition,” she says. “We didn’t have a list, but I knew what this mother meant. She was hoping for a cure and it became clear to me that we needed to be advancing medicine in such a way that a cure would be possible.”

This prompted Dr. Smith to begin assembling a team of experts to talk about the hospital’s future.

“In addition to us simply not having enough space to treat all the people who came to us, it was time for us to create a new vernacular,” says Dr. Smith. “Rehabilitation is a process and a great one—one that we knew how to do really well at RIC. But it’s not an outcome. I wanted our processes to have an end effect on the patient.”


Dr. Smith and her team landed on the word “ability” as the cornerstone of their mission, as well as part of the naming scheme of the new hospital. “We want to advance human ability. Ability is our code word for recovery and cure. The entire organization adopted that word with great passion and vigor,” Smith says. “That promise of ability didn’t come from the guys in our office—it came from the eyes of our patients.”

As the mission took shape, so did plans for a new hospital—the AbilityLab. Dr. Smith has been involved in every decision made to create this revolutionary institution, from choosing the scientists needed to staff it to the color of white paint used to adorn the hospital’s freshly constructed walls.

“I had this a-ha moment in one of our first meetings when the architect asked what I thought about parking,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘Are they talking to me? What do I know about parking? I’m a doctor. I don’t know anything about parking.’ But as it turns out, I did have an opinion about parking garages, and valets, and everything else that goes along with building a state-of-the-art institution.”

Read the rest of the story at "Hinsdale Living".  For media inquires about the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, contact Meg Washburn at mwashburn@sralab.org.

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