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Joanne Smith, M.D. – Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago: Taking Patient Care to the C Suite

Joanne SmithAn interest in science got Joanne Smith, M.D. to medical school and a rotation in orthopedics during residency turned into a passion for rehabilitative care. Today, Smith, as President and CEO of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, combines a physician’s skill and caring with the strategic sense needed to run an organization.

Smith was seeing patients full time at RIC and consulting at the University of Chicago, where she became fascinated with health care marketing and the health care decision-making process. The experience sparked an interest for the strategic aspects of medicine that she hadn’t been exposed to in medical school.

Smith entered the MBA program at the University Of Chicago Booth School Of Business. Although she says it was an easy decision, returning to the classroom after the years spent in medical school was on her mind.

“I felt like I had already put a lifetime into my education medical school and residency required an additional 8 years of school beyond college” she said. “But I also believed that what health care needs more than anything is smart, trained, strategic leaders, and for me, that meant going back for the MBA,” she said.

It’s not uncommon for physicians to have more than one advanced degree; in fact, many pursue post-graduate work in public health or health care administration. Smith decided that the MBA would give her the strategic management skills she saw as necessary for both her professional growth and for the good of medicine.

Smith was “mid-career” when she went back for the MBA, and she noticed a trend. “There are students going straight from medical school into an MBA program,” she says. “On the one hand, it’s a good thing, because the medical profession needs more people with business education, but I feel strongly that you need to spend time as a practicing physician first. Medical school teaches the science of medicine but you need to follow it with seeing patients, leading the care cycle, and experiencing life and death decisions. However for a practicing physician, the MBA experience is quite academic as there are few direct experiences to apply to the coursework.”

When Smith was offered the CEO job, RIC was an organization on the brink of change. She guided the organization from a single downtown facility into a multi-site system that reaches patients throughout the world with a full range of specialized services. She may not have seen herself as a turnaround person, but it worked: RIC is the number one rehabilitation facility on U.S. News and World Report’s Best Hospitals list.

Smith may be at the helm of RIC today, but she is still very much a physician, making unannounced rounds on all RIC patients and seeing a few of her own patients still. The intimacy of patient care keeps her connected at a personal level, which she says, fuels her insight for the big picture, which she says is her true comfort zone.“

It’s very rewarding for me to be where I am in this organization,” she says. “I have a sense of which levers I can move at any one time in the organization and have the privilege of sensing and seeing all the part of the organization move in response to my actions. I find the most motivating and inspiring connection with my organization is when everything together toward a better future.”

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