Mayo Clinic: An Outlier

In his bestseller Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell highlighted research suggesting that lots of focused practice – 10,000 hours or more – is required to reach world-class status in any pursuit.

That hard work, Gladwell said, was necessary but not sufficient. Those who achieved outlier status also had the advantage of what he called “luck.”

For example, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born at the right time and place to be able to get the requisite hours of computer programming practice while in high school.

If they had been born a few years earlier, they wouldn’t have gotten all of this experience and might have settled into comfortable corporate IT jobs; a few years later, and someone else would likely have seized the opportunity.

Circumstances played a significant role in Mayo Clinic’s development, too:

  • William Worrall Mayo established his practice in Rochester, Minnesota in 1864, where he developed a reputation as an excellent diagnostician and surgeon. As young boys, his sons had opportunities to observe and even assist him in his practice, putting them well on the way to their 10,000 hours.
  • A tornado that decimated Rochester in 1883 led the Sisters of St. Francis to build a hospital. Upon their medical school graduations, Dr. William J. Mayo and Dr. Charles H. Mayo joined their father in staffing that hospital, ably assisted by fastidious Franciscan scrub nurses.
  • The Mayo brothers arrived at the dawn of a golden age of surgery, in which advances in anesthesia enabled much more complex procedures than had been possible previously. Their adoption of aseptic techniques also prevented successful procedures from being nullified by post-surgical infections.
  • Communications and transportation advances, from the telegraph to the railroad, aided the spread of news about the Mayo brothers’ exploits and made it practical for patients to travel to Rochester for care.

The Mayo brothers and their associates and successors have contributed many innovations that have changed and will transform health care:

  • They invented the private group practice of medicine and reliance on a team of specialists, a concept that was extremely controversial in their day.
  • They developed the patient-centered unified medical record for those specialists to share their observations and insights about patients.
  • They pioneered intra-operative pathology reports to help surgeons be sure they removed all of the cancer, while leaving as much healthy tissue as possible.
  • They perfected the heart-lung bypass machine, significantly reducing the risks of open heart surgery.
  • They collaborated with local colleagues to create the Rochester Epidemiology Project to learn from generations of comprehensive medical records.
  • They developed a tissue repository that has since been selected by the National Institutes of Health as the foundation for its biobank initiative.

For a more comprehensive look at Mayo Clinic innovations, see this list of 150 Important Contributions to Medicine.

While the circumstances behind Mayo Clinic’s rise aren’t repeatable, its key characteristics can be replicated. For that, it’s helpful to explore Mayo Clinic’s genetic code.

That’s the topic of my next post.

Lee Aase is a Communications Director for Mayo Clinic's Social & Digital Innovation team and is Director of the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network. This post is part of a series called Mayo Clinic's Double Helix: How Revolutionary Organization and Networked Communication Built America's #1 Hospital.

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Mayo Clinic: An Outlier
Mayo Clinic: An Outlier | Mayo Clinic Social Media Network
In his bestseller Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell highlighted research suggesting that lots of focused practice – 10,000 hours or more – is required to reach world-class status in any pursuit.

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