The Future of Rehab: RIC’s Shirley Ryan AbilityLab

The Future of Rehab: RIC’s Shirley Ryan AbilityLab

By Tom Mullaney

When the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago looks to the future, it sets its sights high. In this case, high is its impressive new home: the 27-story Shirley Ryan AbilityLab that aims to rethink the future of research and patient care.

After eight years and $550 million, RIC will celebrate the grand opening of its new flagship on March 25, with a parade of more than 250 physicians, researchers, staff and patients headed to their new home. Apart from its new quarters, RIC, which will officially be known as the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab after the March opening, is instituting a radical sea change in its treatment model: gathering clinicians, researchers and technologists in the same area as patients.

Incorporating scientists in a patient-centered clinical setting will result in “improved patient outcomes and patient cures,” says James Sliwa, DO, RIC’s chief medical officer, as he gave Chicago Health a tour through the new building before its opening.

By combining patient therapy and research in the same area, the new facility embraces a multidisciplinary, collaborative approach to healthcare. The approach is called translational medicine—taking research and rapidly translating it into patient care.

The entire building is designed to embody the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s transformative vision. The change starts upon a patient’s arrival. Check-in takes place on the 10th floor Sky Lobby where patients and visitors will be greeted by uniformed concierges at kiosks (instead of check-in desks) and registered on iPads.

The new building contains offices for global patient services, an education and conference center and three outdoor gardens, including the private Ability Garden where patients can practice walking on foot, wheels or bionic limbs.

The lobby also houses the Henry B. Betts LIFE (Learning, Innovation, Family, Empowerment) Center, a multimedia space with more than 7,000 best-practice, peer-reviewed materials available for guest access in-person or online. It also manages a peer support program for patients, family members and caregivers.

The hospital has a host of innovations. The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab measures 1.2 million square feet with three-fourths dedicated to clinical and research use. This will allow the organization to triple the research space and quadruple the space for outpatient care. The expansion boosts inpatient capacity from 182 to 242 beds, with room for more in the future, Sliwa says. There’s a substantial staffing increase, too. The AbilityLab is expected add 130 new clinical and research positions in 2017.

The facility has new in-house care support capabilities such as an imaging and interventional suite and a medically advanced care unit for intensive care. Patients will no longer need to be transported to Northwestern Memorial Hospital and other facilities for MRI scans, CT scans or other services.

The true heart of the enterprise are five Innovation Centers that combine clinical teams in the following areas: Brain; Spinal Cord; Nerve, Muscle and Bone; Pediatric and Cancer. Plus, five differentiated Ability Labs are focused on the functions each treats, integrating scientists and clinicians in the same space as patients.

For instance, the Strength + Endurance lab works with patients to build stamina and resilience, with therapy and research targeted to improve complex motor and endurance activities. The lab has state-of-the art equipment, including a one-of-a-kind harness system that lets patients safely navigate the lab area as well as stairs.

Sliwa sees this integrated design powering a smoother, more efficient flow of treatment and care. He’s excited about bringing clinicians and researchers together in Ability Labs for the first time.

“Patients will receive treatment right next to researchers who gain a bird’s-eye view into clinical problems,” he says. “Clinicians will be aware of research studies more quickly, enabling better care and outcomes. And patients will be more engaged in research studies.” He sees this integration as the future of rehab care not only at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab but also across healthcare.

The process of joining separate practices to translate research into patient care is a “huge change” in the hospital’s medical culture, Sliwa says. Scientists and clinicians who previously worked apart have now initiated roundtable conversations, and researchers have begun sharing journal studies with physicians.

With this new chapter in RIC’s 64-year history, the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is ready to push the medical envelope and multidisciplinary collaboration into uncharted territory. Its sights are set high, as well as its potential.

Originaly published March 8, 2017