Catherine Rydell, CEO of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), said she never felt qualified for any of her jobs but believes in raising your hand and saying yes to opportunities. Yet when she retires in May, her 21-year tenure will be one of the longest among Minnesota nonprofit leaders.

Before joining the AAN, she was a volunteer leader as a stay-at-home mom who then became a state legislator in North Dakota. She believes that empowering her staff and giving them opportunities of their own is how the AAN has become the largest association for neurologists, with 36,000 members.

Mary Post, executive director of the American Board of Anesthesiology, will take over for Rydell.

Q: How is the AAN of 2020 different from the organization you were chosen to lead in 1999?

A: In 1999, I became the third executive director and the first woman to hold the position. When I arrived, the board had just approved its first strategic plan but was focused more on operations. With the help of some key board members, we were able to evolve the governing body to be much more strategically focused. As programs and services for members grew, we expanded staff, led by a competent and innovative executive team. Continual strategic planning has become the norm, backed by data, member input and environmental scans, which tip us off to new trends and concerns. This enables us to be more proactive, rather than reactive, which is critical in the rapidly shifting health care environment.

Q: How has the field of neurology changed in 20 years and what demands has that placed on AAN?

A: The AAN was founded in 1948 by Dr. A.B. Baker, who chaired the neurology department at the University of Minnesota. He started it to provide support and continuing medical education to young neurologists who were going into practice.

That need for support, not only for practicing neurologists but for those in academic institutions and in research, has significantly grown as the health care environment has become more complicated and challenging.

Today, the AAN has more than 36,000 members — with 28,000 of those in the U.S. — and serves as the world's largest association of neurologists to help the one in six people worldwide affected by neurologic disease, such as stroke, Alzheimer's disease, migraine, Parkinson's disease, concussion, MS, and epilepsy.

Our education and science programs at our annual meetings attract as many as 15,000 attendees. We advocate in Washington, D.C., to reduce the administrative burdens that regulations place on our practicing neurologists. We also advocate for increases in funding for the National Institutes of Health and the BRAIN Initiative so we can speed up the cures and treatments needed for more than 600 brain diseases. And we also help our academic neurologists find greater efficiencies and improvements in care for their patients.

Q: How has membership changed in the last 20 years?

A: One of the most significant aspects is that we have very strong retention rates among our U.S. members, currently at 95%. Our members feel they are getting their money's worth from the AAN, and 83 cents of every dollar in dues goes back to our members in the form of benefits, programs and services. We represent 93% of all neurologists in the U.S. And we have more than 8,000 members from 141 countries.

We have also taken a more holistic approach to recognizing that the neurologist is a member of a care team. It's becoming more the norm that when you see a neurologist, you first see an advanced practice provider who has training in neurology fundamentals and can provide more of the basic services before the neurologist comes to the exam room. We now have more than 1,400 advanced practice providers as members, and we have tailored education programs for them. We also have 300 neurology business administrators as members; they fill the crucial role of keeping our members' practices running efficiently, and we have programs and services to help them in their clinics and institutions.

We have seen more women come into neurology, from 29% of our membership in 2008 to 40% in 2019. Women and minority neurologists still face obstacles in the workplace because of gender and race. AAN has developed training programs to address those challenges, and we have created leadership programs to ensure that the leadership of the AAN and neurology in general is broad-based and representative.

Q: How have the publication and convention businesses contributed to the growth of the organization. How have they grown and why are they important to the membership and organization?

A: Members receive our eight publications, including the Neurology medical journal and Brain & Life magazine for patients (it's free for the public) as either a membership benefit or a deeply discounted subscription rate. The revenue from our publications is a significant portion of our total revenue, which helps us keep member dues low and provide neurologists the services they need.

Our signature event of the AAN since 1949 has been our annual meeting, which has grown to become the world's largest gathering of neurology professionals, with over 15,000 attendees. The last time we held our annual meeting in Minneapolis was in 1998, for our 50th anniversary. Since then, we have grown too large for the number of hotel rooms the downtown area can provide. However, this summer we will be holding our Sports Concussion Conference here and expect as many as 500 attendees.

Our meetings not only bring together the best and brightest experts to teach, inform and inspire attendees, they also offer networking opportunities and camaraderie.

Q: Tell us about your successor and the challenges she and the organization will likely face in the next 20 years.

A: Mary Post was selected based on her extensive experience as a CEO of the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), as well as her broad experience at the American Academy of Neurology, where she served for 16 years (1992–2008) in many leadership roles, including a deputy executive director. We are happy to have Mary come home.

Q: What are next steps for you: traditional retirement or an encore career?

A: I'm truly looking forward to spending more time with family, friends, and enjoying lake life. But I also know that I am intrigued by a challenge. As they say, never say never.

Patrick Kennedy • 612-673-7926