Why Virtual Visits, IBM’s Watson and Other Telemedicine Advances Keep One Neurologist Excited About the Future

A Q&A with Mary Alissa Willis, MD

When Mary Alissa Willis, MD, wrestles with burnout, she reminds herself that her office is the last place any patient wants to be.

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“There was a time in residency when I was struggling with this and depersonalization after several months of a high-volume, high-acuity inpatient service. One of my nonmedical friends called me out on it,” Dr. Willis, a neurologist in Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis, explains. “She reminded me that none of my patients wanted to need my services. A negative attitude from me or anyone on their care team could make their already difficult experience worse.”

What sparked your interest in medicine?

I’ve always loved math, science and problem-solving, but as an extreme introvert, the idea of talking to strangers all day was my worst nightmare. I thought a career in medicine was out of the question. My first job as a process engineer was at a mill in rural Mississippi. My co-workers regularly talked about how difficult it was to see any type of healthcare provider in the area. They and their families often went without care. Those conversations inspired me to try to overcome my fear and apply to medical school.

Share a time-saving technology tip?

I frequently use the delayed message feature on Cleveland Clinic’s MyChart to send patients reminders to schedule appointments or have labs drawn. This also works well to quickly check in with patients a few weeks after a medication change. It takes about 10 to 20 seconds to send these messages during the visit and significantly reduces the need for me or the staff to keep lists of these follow-up items.

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What keeps you excited about the future of healthcare?

With the large healthcare systems in the Cleveland area, it’s hard to imagine that a sizeable portion of the U.S. population has such poor access to subspecialty care and, in some places, to basic care. Quality of care should not be dictated by geography or socioeconomic status. I am excited about the ways that technology (virtual visits, IBM’s Watson and more) will help bridge this gap.

A typical Sunday routine for you?

Sunday is a family day. My wife and I go for a long run in the morning. The rest of the day is all about activities with the kids. I call my mom every Sunday evening to check in on my parents and extended family.

Something your colleagues may be surprised to learn about you?

That I have a creative side. I enjoy drawing and building things with my kids. A cardboard box in our house may be transformed into a space shuttle, school bus, air plane, etc. It’s never just a box.