Brian Donley '86

Building a More Empathetic Health Care System


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As the inaugural CEO of Cleveland Clinic London, Dr. Brian Donley ’86 is building a new hospital. 

But more than the physical building—an eight-story, 185-bed facility tucked behind Buckingham Palace in central London—Donley is working to construct a health care system built around patients, and rooted in empathy. 

“The core of what we do at Cleveland Clinic is our patient-centered approach, that all aspects of the design of a hospital—from construction to care paths to IT—are always about how we can improve empathy,” Donley says. 

And though the hospital will not officially open until the spring of 2021, Donley and his team are already focused on and committed to fostering compassion in the newest Cleveland Clinic location. 

“The core of health care is the expression of empathy from one person to another,” he says. “And so in a leadership role in health care, the critical part is what we can do in the hospital to allow for better expression of empathy from one individual, in our shared humanity, to another individual in need.”

And as Donley puts these values into practice in the development of the hospital, he’s also sharing them with Notre Dame students studying at the London Global Gateway. In addition to offering internships at Cleveland Clinic London to study abroad students, Donley also teaches a one-credit course titled “Healthcare: The Business of Empathy.”

Through a variety of guest speakers and class discussions on medicine and empathy in current events, the 17 students in the class explore how the principle of compassion underpins the development and delivery of health care. 

And as the first guest speaker, Donley invited his Notre Dame roommate, Dr. John Meara. Meara, like Donley, majored in preprofessional studies, and also has become a world-class physician, currently serving as a professor of global surgery and the director of the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change at Harvard Medical School, as well as Plastic Surgeon-in-Chief at Boston Children’s Hospital. 

Donley and Meara started as random roommates in Dillon Hall, and ended up living together all four years at Notre Dame, and another three years in medical school at the University of Michigan. 

“And I was really fortunate because John is a brilliant, driven person who always challenged me to make myself better,” Donley says. 

And throughout their long friendship, both men have built upon the foundation—both personal and professional—that they built at Notre Dame, Meara says. 

“Both Brian and I have a sense that Notre Dame prepared us in a unique way for our career vocation,” he says. “We both have a deep sense of health equity and social justice, and passing this on to the next generation.” 

For Donley, this manifests not only in the course he created at the London Global Gateway, but also in the numerous leadership roles he’s held at the Cleveland Clinic since he began there in 1996 as an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon. 

He eventually became the director of the clinic’s center for foot and ankle surgery before rising to oversee Cleveland Clinic’s regional hospitals. In 2015, he became chief of staff and chief of clinical operations for the entire Cleveland Clinic Health System. He is also a professor of surgery in the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine and has served as a team doctor for several professional sports teams. 

“I think a lot of that success was actually built because of some of the fundamental values that I felt I was able to strengthen and develop while at Notre Dame—values of humility, of passion, of curiosity,” Donley says. 

Those principles guide Donley’s work and have helped him develop the leadership skills necessary to take on a task as daunting and audacious as building a brand new, world-class and patient-centered hospital. 

“Although roles may change, the fundamental principles of leadership don’t change,” he says. “There are three questions employees ask every day: ‘Do I belong? Do I matter? Do I make a difference?’”

Donley focuses on those core questions as they apply to the growing team that he leads as construction progresses on the new London hospital. When he arrived in the United Kingdom early last year, there were about 10 people working on the new Cleveland Clinic London. That staff has since grown to 160, and will be at 1,150 by the time the hospital opens in 2021.

Meara got the chance to meet some of the team at Cleveland Clinic London when he visited to speak to Donley’s class. And the people working with Donley, Meara says, follow his lead in their commitment to making the practice of medicine a more compassionate endeavor.

“It is obvious how passionate they are about what they are doing, and this is due to Brian’s leadership and team building skills — transforming healthcare by creating an ethos of empathy and compassion,” Meara says.