My visit to Chicago’s Shirley Ryan AbilityLab a couple weeks ago was certainly worth the effort. Worth the effort, that is, if you have any interest in glimpsing the future of acute rehabilitative care. The AbilityLab is the new brand identity for the formerly named Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago; and that new identity fits perfectly with their brand spanking new $600 million facility. As I wrote on May 23rd, the unique concept now is “the first-ever “translational” research hospital in which clinicians, scientists, innovators and technologists work together in the same space, 24/7, surrounding patients, discovering new approaches and applying (or “translating”) research real time.”

The overall concept is quite innovative, for two primary reasons; customized immersive care and the research/clinician partnerships previously mentioned. The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab offers its revolutionary model of care through five Innovation Centers focused on areas of biomedical science. They are:

  • Brain Innovation Center
  • Spinal Cord Innovation Center
  • Nerve, Muscle & Bone Innovation Center
  • Pediatric Innovation Center
  • Cancer Rehabilitation Innovation Center

Each center features medical and research pods located within or adjacent to patient and rehab sections designed for optimum care at the facility. The close working relationship of all pertinent players provides innovative support for medical professionals, while allowing researchers to better understand and respond to real life situations and needs.

The immersive care approach is facilitated through a true team effort, where patients are provided with doctors, psychologists, occupational therapists, biofeedback experts, rehabilitative therapists and more, each working in a coordinated approach to insure the best possible outcome. It is a radical departure from traditional medicine, but it is a quantum leap towards improving care overall.

While my visit there, as part of an open house sponsored by Out Front Ideas with Mark Walls and Kimberly George, did an impressive job of relaying the importance of melding the research and clinician disciplines, it was quite simply the attitude behind the effort that left me most impressed. Every inch, every thought, every breath, every moment in time at the AbilityLab is focused on restoring function; not just returning injured workers to a job, but restoring whatever quality of life possible to them and their families.

Every speaker and every presentation mentioned function – Restoring function, functional restoration, or as one speaker put it, “function, function, function, function, function.” If only my friends at the IAIABC Disability Management and Return to Work Committee could have been there to experience that with me. Having been steadily beating the function drum the last few years, their message was music to my ears.

During the visit, all the attendees were split into smaller groups, and taken through an immersion experience designed to show us what the patients go through in their course of treatment. My group was taken through various steps of their pain management program. I was chagrined to learn that drugs would not be freely distributed during our immersion experience. The mission of the AbilityLab, it turns out, is to minimize drug dependency in the management of persistent pain. One of the most encouraging elements of this particular program was the inclusion of effective psychological care for these patients.

4 Weeks to MMI

There is a strong awareness at the AbilityLab of the importance of understanding and addressing the psycho-social issues that are impacting the recovery of any pain patient. In the session our group attended with Clinical Psychologist Dr. Patricia Cole, the importance of breaking through the stigmas and psycho-social barriers were covered in excellent detail. When addressing a question regarding a payer’s reluctance to admit one of their injured workers to such a program, Dr. Cole got everyone’s immediate attention by saying quite simply, “4 weeks to MMI.” That phrase drew a few audible responses from very surprised people in the room.  Dr. Cole went on to explain that, while certainly not applicable to every case, most of their patients do reach MMI at the end of their 4 week program. Part of the psychologist’s job, of course, is preparing the patient for what MMI might actually entail.

I should note that not every patient will see every type of expert I mentioned previously. They are all treated according to their needs, but all those involved in their care are part of a cohesive team, and that is something sorely missing in modern medicine today.

If you ever have the chance to visit Chicago I would encourage you to visit this facility. If you can’t make it in person, tour their website for more detailed info on their services.

As I said earlier, it was the attitude and enthusiasm of the management and staff that really told us we were seeing something unique at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. It is outcome based medicine on steroids; if life was a NASCAR race, these folks would be the dedicated pit crew you’d want when something went wrong. This place is about Ability, plain and simple. After all, Ability is in its name, so it must be true. They probably couldn’t “function” without it.


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