Health Care

Obituary for Shirley Ryan AbilityLab CEO Dr. Joanne Smith

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“Dr. Smith re-envisioned and reinvented the field of physical medicine,” board chair M. Jude Reyes said in a statement today. “She shifted the paradigm and focus from the process of rehabilitation to the outcome of ability. For the first time, she integrated research and novel, outcomes-based metrics into patient care, resulting in better, faster recoveries.”

The AbilityLab will be led by Chief Operating Officer Peggy Kirk and Chief Administrative Officer Nancy Paridy until the board names a permanent leader, according to the statement.

Following her M.D., her residency and years as an attending physician, as well as earning an MBA from the University of Chicago, Smith became CEO of the rehabilitation hospital in 2006.

During her tenure, she worked to integrate research, technology and clinical care resulting in a “translational” research hospital that aims to find solutions to medical problems in real time.

AbilityLab opened in 2017 after eight years, $550 million and eight-figure gifts from the city’s wealthiest citizens, including Patrick and Shirley Ryan. Since then, Smith’s team has worked hard to advance physical medicine and rehabilitation. 

During the lab’s gestation, when Smith wasn’t getting the results she wanted from the project’s architects, she recruited Los Angeles interior architect Clive Wilkinson, a vendor to Google, Microsoft and Disney. 

“She was not going to be sidelined by a lot of resistance,” Wilkinson told Crain’s in 2018.

In the months before the COVID-19 pandemic, AbilityLab was gearing up to launch a quality assessment tool that measures patients’ rehabilitation and recovery progress to guide doctors and insurers.

“Insurance providers are paying us all in the market now as if there’s no difference—and there is a difference,” Smith told Crain’s in 2019. “Without a measurable, viable outcome system, all you have is cost. . . .Those who don’t do well by way of patient outcomes should either get better or leave the market.”

Smith said she knew she wanted to give Ability Quotient away for free, rather than charging a fee like electronic health records vendors, because of the impact it could have on patient outcomes and the market.

She is survived by Rory Repicky, her husband of 33 years, and their children, Claire and Michael. 

“To Joanne, her work was always more than a job; it was a calling,” Repicky said in the hospital’s statement. “By extension, her team members were always more than colleagues; they were members of her beloved, extended family. I know that her legacy will live on in this institution and in each and every employee working to improve the lives of the patients they serve.”

In a 2017 profile, Smith told Crain’s that before she entered medical school at Michigan State University, she first went to nursing school.

“I bombed out,” she said. “Nursing is a structured field, and I needed to interact with patients in a way that was less process- based and more discovery- and healing-based. So I tried pre-med and jumped right into organic chemistry. At the end of class, the teacher asked to buy my notebook. He said he thought it would be the basis for his book. Then I knew: If organic chemistry was a weed-out class, I thought, maybe I should go into medicine. I did and excelled.”

Smith was on Modern Healthcare’s 2021 Top 25 Women Leaders, and 2018 and 2019 50 Most Influential Clinical Executives.


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