Word of Mouth in Mayo Clinic’s DNA

Networked Communication is one major strand in the double helix of Mayo Clinic's cultural DNA, paired with Mayo's Revolutionary Patient-Centered Organization. Last time we looked at the role of professional networking in Mayo Clinic's origins, growth, and development. In these next two posts in the #MayoClinicDNA series, we'll examine the impact of networked communications in establishing Mayo's prominence among patients and consumers.

Around the turn of the 20th century, stories of the Mayo brothers' surgical exploits — told by both the patients themselves and by their friends and neighbors — spread rapidly within a lengthening radius from Rochester, Minnesota. While the Mayos' medical peers were suitably impressed, the intensity of the word of mouth among non-professionals was several times higher. As Helen Clapesattle recalls it in The Doctors Mayo (p.200),

Without this fact there is no explaining the amazing increase in the Mayos' surgical practice.

Something of all this is distilled in the recollection of a Nebraska doctor who was born and raised in the vicinity of Rochester, where a certain Irishman was one of the sights of the little community. Natives would point him out: "There is Pat Glynn," they would say. "Will Mayo cut a piece out of his stomach, and he lived!"

A deep and comforting faith in the marvelous powers of the brother surgeons in Rochester spread through the countryside like fingers of water in thirsty sand.

Twin communications infrastructure developments, the telegraph and the train, accelerated that spread. The latter was particularly important. It brought patients to Rochester and returned them home to tell their stories. Railroad conductors who interacted with patients in transit became additional communication channels. Highly mobile railroad personnel shared accounts of

...that helpless paralytic, Sister Martha, who came on a cot all the way from Ironton, Ohio, where not even the Cincinnati doctors had been able to find out what was wrong with her, though the Mayos located her trouble and had her getting better within a week; or that nine-year-old John Lewis from Butte, Montana, who couldn't swallow even milk and was so thin and sick they had to carry him on a pillow, but who was running about as lively as a cricket when they took him home a year later.

And there was the time a young mother in Mountain Lake, one of the German Mennonites from Russia who settled there, put her little boy on the train and asked the trainmen to take him to Rochester. The little fellow was almost blind, only six years old, and couldn't speak a word of English. His mother couldn't afford to go with him, but she fixed him a basket of food, and across his front she pinned a big sign, "Take me to St. Mary's Hospital."

With incidents like these for the trainmen to talk about, it was not mere coincidence that there soon began to appear on the Mayo records patients identified as "engineer from Omaha," "railroad man from LaCrosse," "dispatcher at Dubuque."

Nor were trainmen the only ones from beyond the state. As early as 1893 St. Mary's was admitting patients from Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, and Ohio as well as the nearer Iowa, Wisconsin, Dakota, and Montana. (Clapesattle, pp. 208-9)

Ever since that time, word-of-mouth has been the single most important information source driving consumer and patient preference for Mayo Clinic. In our ongoing brand research, we ask consumers an open-ended question related to where they would go for treatment of a serious medical condition if their insurance and personal finances allowed.

While others have higher preference within their local regions, Mayo Clinic has always been #1 nationally. Among those who prefer Mayo, we probe for the information sources that are most influential in forming their opinions. Word-of-Mouth is always at the top.

Because we understood the connection between word-of-mouth and patient preference — as well as the continuity between old-fashioned, face-to-face social networking and the potential of modern digital social media — our Mayo Clinic communications team was relatively early to recognize and seize the opportunities in social networking sites, where today's Pat Glynns, Sister Marthas and John Lewises can share their stories with much larger audiences.

Next time we'll look at the historical role of News Stories, the #2 information source behind Mayo's patient preference, and how their scope and impact have expanded in the social and digital media era.

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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Word of Mouth in Mayo Clinic's DNA
Word of Mouth in Mayo Clinic’s DNA
Word of Mouth in Mayo Clinic’s DNA | Mayo Clinic Social Media Network

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