Corner Office: Cleveland Clinic Chief Experience Officer Dr. Adrienne Boissy on healthcare's most undervalued skill

When a team of physicians leaves a patient's room, their minds often move immediately to the next patient. However, Adrienne Boissy, MD, cannot help but think of how the last patient is processing the news, oftentimes life changing, and what she can do to help them understand it better.

As chief experience officer at Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Boissy has made patient interactions her priority. She began her career as a staff neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic and went on to serve as medical director of the system's Center of Excellence in Healthcare Communication. She earned her bachelor's degree at Boston University and her doctorate of medicine at Hershey-based Penn State College of Medicine.

Dr. Boissy recently spoke with Becker's and answered our seven "Corner Office" questions.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited lightly for length and style

Question: What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare? 

Dr. Adrienne Boissy: Well, that's a bigger story than you may have intended [laughs]. There are two formative principles that have driven me; one is…I think you need to have seen suffering in the world and wanted to ease it, and the other is about survival. When I say survival, I think that some degree of persistent enthusiasm is required to pursue your passion and your questions, and that brought me where I am.

I grew up in a difficult family, as many of us do, that was dysfunctional for a number of reasons. My father died when I was really young. I emerged in my teen years thinking a lot about human behavior. Why do people do the things they do, behave the way they behave, say the things they say? For me, those are questions I still haven't answered. After college I was a bartender and a neurobiological researcher, and then I went off to medical school because I was afraid I'd be bartender forever.

Once I entered the medical world, it became increasingly fascinating. I was always thinking about the blank look on patients' faces when we all walked out of the room. This massive team of healthcare people would come in, dispense a bunch of knowledge and walk out. You could tell on their face they had no idea what had just occurred, and it was me that was left thinking about those things.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Cleveland?

AB: I grew up in Washington, D.C. Then lived in Boston, and I swore after medical school that I would go right back to Boston. I went to medical school in Hershey, Penn., and at that time they used to send their students to the Cleveland Clinic. When I first went to Cleveland, I couldn't quite figure it out. I couldn't figure out the right place to live, they had streets that went at different directions at different times — it was kind of confusing. But the one thing I really grew to love about Cleveland is the people.

I came here because, as a neurologist, sometimes it's hard to find people you connect with easily. I met some amazing people who were quite normal, but may be the leader in their field or expert in whatever area they are pursing, and that was a huge attraction for me. And today Cleveland is vibrant and thriving, and you see this awesome mix of culture and heritage. I can retreat to my house outside of the city in the forest, and yet I can also see an Elvis impersonator downtown, so it's a great blend.

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be?

AB: Making every single person in healthcare feel cared for. When I say cared for, I mean they receive safe care that's high quality but also empathic and affordable. I've lived out a lot of my career in a place that values these qualities, but it's interesting when I go around the country or the globe and one thing people are most interested in is how to get their leaders engaged in patients and patient experience.

The tricky part about it is that I don't think there's a single human being who went into healthcare because they don't care; every single person I've come across went into healthcare because they wanted to help other human beings. I think other times the system gets in the way of making that as easy as it sounds, but I can assure you that if people don't leave our organizations feeling seen and known as human beings, that's something the hospital is not going to recover from.

Q: What is your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

AB: Although it may need some dusting off, I did ballet for many, many years and I've tried to transition that to ballroom dancing, although that's been interesting — especially once children come along. You know, I think a backup career might be a bartender if nothing else works out. I did that for about decade in Boston and learned a lot about human behavior in that role. I've also spent a lot of my life thinking that empathy and compassion were Achilles heels for me, that if I was always walking around think about how other people felt that I was sort of weird because it's not always valued.

I've never had someone come up to me and say, "That's just amazing about how insightful you were about what that patient was going through." People don't say that, we say congratulations for discharging that patient as quickly as possible. As time has gone on, I've come to appreciate my sense of empathy as a skill, and it's something that's behooved me in my leadership and personal life.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

AB: I have regular dance parties with my family. We prefer Michael Jackson. There's a lot of things in life not to laugh about, so I think we need to intentionally spend some time in laughter and in play. My best moments are when I am immersed in moments of laughter. Quite honestly, it's powerfully unifying to be grounded in something other than your phone or emails.

Q: What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly? 

AB: So I had a piece of advice that was given to me by one of my best friends in grade school, it was actually written on the side of a coffee cup. It was simply, "Of course you can." At that point in my life, it was hard to know what I should be doing, or where I should be focusing energy and time. I always reference back to that when I'm uncertain or afraid. Sometimes those simple things have a way of orienting you. Early as a neurologist, one of the best pieces of advice I got was to build bridges outside of my microcosm. When I came to Cleveland Clinic as a neurologist, someone came to me and said, "You should have some support outside of where you are," and that's something I've stuck with.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at the Cleveland Clinic so far?

AB: My hope is that my greatest achievement is expanding the dialogue. What I mean by that is that our work is really about human suffering, and I'd really like to think that we've moved from talking about the patient experience to talking about the human experience. At the Cleveland Clinic, we spend a lot of time talking about how healthcare is a human experience, and there are unique needs for patients that are different from person to person. The more attentive we can be to that — I think it will empower us all.

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