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Two Strands and Four Base Pairs in Mayo Clinic’s DNA

In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick identified the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which led to a revolution in understanding how genetic inheritance works. The now-familiar double helix of DNA was a mix of four bases, typically represented by a single capital letter:

  • A – adenine
  • C – cytosine
  • G – guanine
  • T – thymine

Each DNA molecule contains a mix of the four bases, but their arrangement is anything but random: bases in opposing strands of the double helix are paired. A on one strand is always matched by T on the other, and C always corresponds with G. This pairing helps to explain how the genetic information contained in DNA is so faithfully transmitted during cell division and in protein production.

Just as organisms have a genetic code that guides their development, organizations have a cultural DNA comprised of their values and historical traditions.

One strand in Mayo Clinic’s cultural double helix is its revolutionary patient-centered care model. If you stop 100 employees in a hallway and ask them to name Mayo Clinic’s primary value, the reply from 95 or more will be “The needs of the patient come first.”

That’s shorthand for the philosophy put forth by Dr. William J. Mayo in 1910 when he addressed the graduating class of Rush Medical College in Chicago. To our 21st century ears, the masculine nouns and pronouns in the early part of this passage are a bit jarring, but for the original hearers the controversy (emphasized below) came toward the end:

As we men of medicine grow in learning we more justly appreciate our dependence upon each other. The sum total of medical knowledge is now so great and widespreading that it would be futile for any one man…to assume that he has even a working knowledge of any large part of the whole. The very necessities of the case are driving practitioners into cooperation. The best interest of the patient is the only interest to be considered, and in order that the sick may have the benefit of advancing knowledge, union of forces is necessary….It has become necessary to develop medicine as a cooperative science; the clinician, the specialist, and the laboratory workers uniting for the good of the patient….The people will demand, the medical profession must supply, adequate means for the proper care of patients, which means that individualism in medicine can no longer exist.

In the Little House on the Prairie era, doctors had labored under – and had helped to create – the illusion of the omniscient expert. Many physicians saw depending on others as at least a sign of weakness, and quite probably as a shirking of personal responsibility. Dr. Will’s proclamation that cooperation in care was not just advisable, but even ethically mandatory, was revolutionary indeed.

This radical patient-centeredness had important ramifications. Physicians and surgeons in the Mayo practice were paid fixed salaries, so no one had financial incentive to do anything but what was best for the patients. And the design of facilities and the unified medical record encouraged convenient consultations with colleagues who had relevant expertise in a particular patient’s case.

The unified medical record also exemplified the other strand of Mayo Clinic’s cultural double helix: Networked Communications. Previously, each physician kept a private journal of observations about their patients. The unified medical record made it possible for every physician to have the benefit of the insights of every other physician involved in diagnosing and treating a given patient.

Countries Dr. William Mayo Visited

The Mayo brothers’ extensive travels were an external manifestation of this second DNA strand. They traveled both to observe and learn from other surgeons and to share their knowledge. As Helen Clapesattle notes in her definitive Mayo brothers biography, “By the end of the 1920s Dr. Will could say he had studied surgery in every town in America and Canada of one hundred thousand population or more, and had crossed the Atlantic thirty times.”

While they rarely traveled at the same time until after their retirements in 1932, together the Mayo brothers visited 25 countries on four continents…all before the age of air travel. They also encouraged and funded travel by the physicians who were employees in their practice.

This history of analog, in-person social networking made Mayo Clinic’s embrace of online social networking much more likely.

Dr. William Mayo traveled for 30 days by train and steamship in 1924 to interact with professional colleagues in New Zealand and Australia. How could we, as his successors, not take advantage of today's tools that enable us to make similar connections almost instantaneously?

Just as DNA is made of four bases represented as ATCG, so four characteristics are the essential building blocks of Mayo Clinic’s culture:

  • Teamwork
  • Altruism
  • Progress
  • Stewardship

In future posts we’ll explore each of these bases and how they relate to Mayo Clinic as an organization and to its use of social media.

But next time we’ll look at how culture is synthesized.

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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