Welcome to the SAA Interview Series!
This month, we had the honor of interviewing current American Academy of Audiology President, Sarah Sydlowski, AuD, PhD, MBA!
Can you give us a quick description of who you are, what your official title is, and where you are currently working?
I’m an audiologist and am currently President of the American Academy of Audiology. I’m Associate Chief Improvement Officer and Audiology Director of the Hearing Implant Program at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. I also teach the Implantable Technologies course at NOAC.
Where did you receive your Bachelor’s and AuD/PhD?
My bachelor’s degree is from the University of Dayton. I started as pre-dental but toward the end of my junior year, I switched to psychology with the intention of going to graduate school for audiology. I pursued my AuD at the University of Louisville because I was so impressed with their clinical experience and the fact that it began on day one, first year. Also, being based in the medical school, I loved the cadaver lab and the strong anatomy and physiology foundation we received.
I completed my final year externship at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. After graduation, I was hired to coordinate the implant program, but after a little over a year, I decided to go back for my PhD. I knew I wanted to teach, do clinical research, and have administrative responsibility for a program in a large academic medical center, and I believed a PhD would give me the greatest opportunity to pursue that path. I received my PhD from Gallaudet University and moved to the Cleveland Clinic.
After about 10 years, I realized that in order to be most effective administratively, and in order to be able to proactively address the challenges to the business of healthcare and audiology we are facing, I needed to expand my business vocabulary and acumen so I went back to school again and completed my Executive MBA from Case Western Reserve University in 2020.
Can you tell us what your current role involves?
In my current role, I spend a portion of my time as Audiology Director of the Hearing Implant Program (HIP) in the Head and Neck Institute at the Cleveland Clinic and a portion of my time as Associate Chief Improvement Officer for the Enterprise. In my role with the HIP, my responsibilities range from seeing patients clinically to administrative responsibilities for the program.
Clinically, I see all implantable hearing technologies. I also do some diagnostics, including intraoperative testing of the implant by remotely connecting to the OR. I am involved in hearing aid management for my bimodal recipients as well. In my career, I’ve been involved in evoked potentials, intraoperative monitoring, and even some vestibular very early on. I have enjoyed the diversity of experiences, but implants have always been, and I suspect will always be, my first love in audiology.
Administratively, I focus a good portion of my time on increasing the visibility and reputation of our program. This is important for our practice, but also for patients so they know they have a credible, reliable provider of the services they need and they are able to find us when they need us. Along these lines, I am involved in clinical research, both with implantable devices and currently with early identification of adults with hearing loss in collaboration with primary care and geriatric medicine providers. I also work closely with my co-director of the HIP (a neurotologist) to coordinate our efforts so that we can optimize access for as many patients as possible while maintaining high quality outcomes and being mindful of running a successful business that adds value to our institution. That involves equipment contracts, marketing, clinical protocol development and refinement, and identification of research opportunities.
In my Associate Chief Improvement Officer role, my primary responsibility is building a culture where every caregiver is capable, empowered, and expected to make improvements every day. I lead a team of continuous improvement specialists who support all of our institutes and hospitals in their use of systems like organizational alignment, visual management, problem solving, and standardization to set goals and achieve success with what matters most to their area and their leaders. We use continuous improvement methodology to drive change across all key areas, including operations, patient experience, quality, safety, and others.
Can you give us a backstory on how your career has evolved to where it is now?
As you can tell, this has not been the typical linear career path. I think the simplest answer to the question of how my career evolved is that I always stayed curious and I’m not afraid to lean into new opportunities to learn. I am passionate about connecting people who need to hear better with access to the right technology and I tried to stay open to learning and imagining new ways to do that. I have been fortunate to build a diverse network of colleagues, friends, and resources from different disciplines and industries, so I’m able to draw from experiences outside of audiology to think about how we can do things differently.
I’ve jumped on any opportunities to challenge myself that have come along, in particular, becoming and staying really active in professional volunteer experiences like board service. And I can’t help but look for how we can do things better, always. I think that desire to always do better was really at the root of why I pursued my PhD and then my MBA – so eventually finding my second career path in continuous improvement just seems like a really natural fit.
What is your favorite thing about your current position?
My current position is the best of all the aspects of what I love most. I get to use my unusual skill set and background to effect change for hearing healthcare, not only in my own clinical practice, but to some extent for our profession as a whole. I like to think that what I’m doing today will change hearing healthcare in the future for patients and providers alike.
For me, it feels like I can impact far more lives doing the work I do now than I could one patient at a time in clinic. I hope to improve the lives of exponentially more people through my volunteer efforts, research that changes candidacy criteria or practice delivery models, and by teaching improvement capability to others and I can do so in a way that I’m uniquely qualified to do. Plus, by being active in continuous improvement, I don’t have to limit that influence to only audiology. I can teach and learn from people across healthcare and help them effect their own exciting change in the areas of healthcare about which they are most passionate.
It can be challenging at times because my mentors and role models haven’t followed exactly this path, but I can take pieces of what they’ve done in different areas and apply it to my own experience and carve my own unique path. I’m really grateful to have the opportunity and flexibility to find ways to contribute through my career in ways I never expected.
Is there anything you want to say or suggest to students who in the future may be interested in pursuing a similar role?
My best advice would be to never tie yourself to following the standard path. Don’t limit yourself with job titles or precedents or expectations. Follow your passions, don’t be afraid to try new things and work really hard, and build a network of mentors, sponsors, and people who will challenge you to do more of what suits you best. One of my favorite quotes that has long hung on my fridge is “If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world, but does not feel good in your heart, then it’s not success at all” (Anna Quindlen). Do what feels good in your heart and you’ll find success that means the most to you, even if it’s through an uncommon approach.
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