Earlier this spring, cardiothoracic surgeon Rakesh M. Suri, MD, DPhil, returned to the United States from Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi to take on a new Cleveland Clinic role, President of International Operations, and resume surgical practice at Cleveland Clinic’s main campus in Ohio.
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He made the move after serving as CEO of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi since 2017 and serving as its Chair of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery since the hospital opened its doors in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2015. He has overseen Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi’s overall strategy and operation as the first U.S. multispecialty hospital to be replicated outside North America with more than 5,000 caregivers.
The move adds Dr. Suri’s extensive and pioneering clinical expertise — particularly in robotic and minimally invasive cardiac surgery, mitral valve repair and transcatheter valve therapies — to the deep bench of Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery in Cleveland.
“I’m excited to be directly working with the most experienced heart team in the world, with the best outcomes,” says Dr. Suri. “I look forward to contributing to the group however I can. My passion lies in valve repair, preserving valves to benefit patients, and determining the right time to operate so that patients are spared the challenges of heart failure and myocardial dysfunction associated with severe, persistent valve regurgitation.”
“We are delighted that Dr. Suri has returned to our main campus to contribute to our outstanding robotic mitral valve repair program,” says Lars Svensson, MD, PhD, Chair of Cleveland Clinic’s Miller Family Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute. “Rakesh has been recognized as a great leader, innovator and researcher in mitral valve repair. We look forward to how he will further increase our team’s expertise, help serve our patients from across the nation and contribute to future publications.”
“It is a pleasure to work in the OR with Dr. Suri,” adds Marc Gillinov, MD, Chair of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. “He is one of the finest mitral valve surgeons in the world, and adding his expertise to our program — which is already the world’s premier mitral valve service — helps us keep advancing therapies for those with mitral valve disease.”
A new international role
When Dr. Suri is not caring for patients, his energies are devoted to leading Cleveland Clinic’s overall international strategy as its new President of International Operations.
“Our new mandate is to work with our teams across the globe to create an integrated and inspiring vision for delivery of care to patients outside the U.S.,” he explains. “That includes those who travel to any Cleveland Clinic care hub around the globe — whether in Northeast Ohio, Florida, Toronto, Abu Dhabi or soon London — and those who access our care virtually. We will articulate an inspiring team-based vision that guides Cleveland Clinic’s growth in a manner aligned with our organization’s goal to double the number of lives we serve in a way that’s centered on value for every patient, every caregiver, the communities we serve and the enterprise.
“Cleveland Clinic is now an integrated global healthcare network of over 70,000 connected caregivers,” Dr. Suri continues, “and hunger for our services is higher than ever. We recognize that the best way to meet that demand is to adopt a proactive and visionary approach where we closely coordinate expansion outside the U.S. with our enterprise-wide strategy. That means ensuring that care is consistently standardized at the highest level all across our system, regardless of where or how patients access us.”
Key to those goals is exemplary care coordination, within and across sites. “Once a patient is in our system,” he says, “we must be focused on getting them to the right service in the right place and the right way at the right time, to minimize any internal friction for the patient. Our unique value proposition is that we can now offer our patients located anywhere access to the specialized expertise of our caregivers across the globe when they need us, preventing them from having to travel long distances and returning them to normal lives as rapidly as possible.”
Building on successes in Abu Dhabi
Despite the demands of this new role, Dr. Suri views maintaining his cardiac surgery practice as a key to his success in it, based on his experience as an executive leader at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
“It was very clear in Abu Dhabi that working side by side with other caregivers and being on the front lines of innovation was instrumental to building our reputation with patients, referring providers, the community and the nation,” he says.
This was true, he notes, for himself as well as his predecessor as CEO of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, fellow cardiothoracic surgeon Tom Mihaljevic, MD, who is now CEO and President of the overall Cleveland Clinic enterprise. “We took in-house call, we stayed with our patients, we were responsible for operations from opening the skin to closing the chest to transporting our patients to the ICU,” he explains. “This kept us familiar with all aspects of patient care, made us aware of challenges for both patients and caregivers, built trust with families and kept us attuned to the importance of teamwork in delivery of the Cleveland Clinic model of care 8,000 miles from where we learned how to practice medicine.”
The results speak for themselves. Over the past four years Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi expanded its robust multispecialty offerings, including the launch of the UAE’s first multi-organ transplant program in 2017. The hospital saw 20% year-over-year growth in clinical outpatient, surgical and inpatient volumes despite the COVID-19 pandemic — all while achieving the highest possible (five-star) overall quality score from the UAE’s Department of Health.
Similarly notable are the team’s accomplishments in cardiothoracic surgery, including the creation of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi’s transcatheter cardiac programs and the most sophisticated minimally invasive and robotic cardiac surgery program in the region. “We’ve been able to innovate on both the surgical and transcatheter fronts,” Dr. Suri says, “performing several new transcatheter mitral valve procedures — leaflet and annuloplasty procedures — that hadn’t even been performed in North America.”
What’s particularly gratifying, he notes, is that seeking care for adult heart disease went from previously being the No. 1 reason people traveled from the UAE to now being extremely rare. “Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi has essentially fulfilled all the adult cardiac surgery needs for the nation and the region,” he says. “That’s been one of the highlights of our professional journeys.”
Enduring lessons from abroad
Dr. Suri says his six years in Abu Dhabi left him with enduring lessons that will serve him well in his roles back in the U.S.
One directly concerns patient care. “We often get so busy in our practices that we may shortchange the human side of our interaction with the patient in front of us,” he reflects. “In a culture like Abu Dhabi’s, relationships are so important, particularly establishing trust between the physician and the patient and family. That emphasis on relationship and trust left me with a much greater focus on the human element and art of caregiving than I had before. That has remained with me and has made many of us more empathetic, compassionate and culturally sensitive human beings.”
Another lesson stemmed from the experience of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, which arrived in Abu Dhabi before it reached the U.S. This required the team to, in Dr. Suri’s words, “make bold decisions and take leaps of faith leveraging our Cleveland Clinic team-of-teams network across the globe” before traditional Western regulatory bodies weighed in.
“What the pandemic taught us,” he says, “is that we’re only as healthy and able to pursue our day-to-day lives as are the least protected communities across the planet. It made clear that healthcare moving forward will not be a zero-sum game. It will demand a new degree of collaboration and connectedness that we hope to help foster with partners and colleagues across the U.S. and around the world. We are inspired by the power of 100 years of Cleveland Clinic caregiver contributions to improve the lives of millions of people on the other side of the planet and meaningfully redirect the course of their future.”