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Business of Care

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Joanne Smith
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

For Joanne Smith, the moment that determined her life’s course arrived when she was a young medical student visiting an amputee clinic in Michigan. She knew that the clinic’s patients were all young children (the oldest was about ten years old), and that some of them were missing multiple body parts. She approached the encounter with some trepidation, and indeed, as she entered the place, she was shocked. Despite their severe disabilities, scores of happy children were laughing, playing games, and enjoying one another’s company. “It was just like any other waiting room with kids waiting for the doctor,” says Smith today, the amazement still evident in her voice. “I literally said out loud, ‘What is this?’”

That experience prompted Smith to study disability medicine and ultimately led her to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), where she was hired by Dr. Henry Betts, the institution’s legendary former medical director, president, and CEO, and the current chairman of its foundation. With an interest in women’s musculoskeletal medicine, pain management in pregnancy, and pelvic pain, Smith went on to found and direct the Women’s Health Rehabilitation Program at RIC. “I had observed a group of patients—women—who only had surgical options for care,” says Smith, explaining her motivation. “I knew there were nonsurgical things we could do for them that [orthopedic surgeons and other doctors] couldn’t.”

Smith also discovered that she had a special knack for understanding the needs of her patients, and working with Betts and his team in the early 1990s, she helped devise a growth plan that would allow RIC to better serve its clientele. Somehow she also found time to earn an MBA from the University of Chicago and spearhead an ongoing, $20-million overhaul of the institute’s information systems technology. Though she recently ceded the directorship of the women’s rehab program to Dr. Colleen Fitzgerald, she continues to see patients, which colors her efforts in her new role as president of RIC operations–national. “If you deliver [care] strictly as a business,” she insists, “you will fail.”

An amateur photographer, an avid sailor, and a practitioner of the culinary arts, Smith, 44, lives in Hinsdale with her husband, Rory Repicky, a financial consultant with Smith Barney, and their two young children. Juggling the demands of her family, her interests, and her multi-faceted job is clearly a special skill all its own, but Smith is fueled by her need to improve the world around her. “We need to find a better future for our patients,” she says. “That’s what gives me energy—the friction between what is today and what could be tomorrow.”

 

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