The Mayo Clinic Approach to Healing Healthcare

The power of volunteerism and compassion among healthcare workers is evident right now more than ever before. Healthcare workers are showing us the heart of America, and after this COVID-19 crisis resolves, we as a nation will stand taller. The Mayo Clinic, one of the most revered health systems in the world, is working at the front lines of this pandemic through extensive research efforts and preparing their hospitals to accommodate a surge in patients. But Mayo Clinic’s preparedness in this situation is the result of an over 150-year history of building a culture ingrained in employees. So, what makes the Mayo Clinic a symbol of hope to the 1.2 million patients who are treated at their hospitals and clinics each year? I spoke with Dr. Leonard Berry, a distinguished professor of Marketing at Texas A&M and co-author of Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic, to learn more. Dr. Berry’s book, coauthored with Kent Seltman who served as Mayo Clinic’s first marketing director, has sold more than half a million copies worldwide, and the book has been described as “a landmark” in the healthcare field by former Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Dr. Donald Berwick. Out of the innumerable positive qualities Mayo Clinic possesses, I want to discuss three that I believe are key to their success: Mayo Clinic’s high-quality doctors, its culture of medical teamwork, and its welcoming environment.

Healthcare is not a want-service, it is a need-service. We all need healthcare, and as Dr. Berry says, “the most important consumer decision you will ever make is choosing your doctor.” Only in the medical field does a patient need to trust their healthcare provider with their most personal and intimate information. From his study of the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Berry identified characteristics of Mayo doctors that help instill such a high level of physician-trust within each of their patients. Dr. Berry found that the ideal physician embraces the following qualities:

  • Confidence — the physician’s assured manner generates trust
  • Empathy — the physician is able to genuinely understand what a patient is feeling both physically and emotionally and is able to communicate this empathy
  • Humane — the physician has a deep level of care for the patient and is not rushed
  • Personal — the physician treats the patient as an individual rather than as “just another patient”
  • Forthright — the physician clearly explains the situation with a patient without beating around the bush
  • Respectful — the physician listens to the patient’s wishes intently 
  • Thorough — the physician explains everything and follows up with a patient’s health

Dr. Berry explains how many Mayo physicians possess most, if not all, of these qualities as do outstanding doctors elsewhere. At Mayo Clinic, doctors hold each other accountable. He says, “the currency at Mayo Clinic is clinical excellence, and employees set a very high standard for one another.” 

Mayo Clinic is guided by the principle of “the needs of the patient come first,” and this is clear in its compensation structure. Mayo doctors are paid by salary. While most doctors around the country are financially incentivized to perform more medical care, this is not the case at Mayo. At Mayo, a physician never has a financial incentive to do an unneeded test or procedure—or a financial disincentive to lend a helping hand to another physician. At Mayo, medicine is a cooperative science, and multiple doctors pool their knowledge and work together to treat a single patient. Dr. Berry explains how more care is not necessarily better care, and can harm the patient while resulting in waste. Dr. Berry summarizes this by saying that “those who need to bask in the starlight of personal recognition or wealth are not a good fit at Mayo and need to work elsewhere.”

I asked Dr. Berry what gives Mayo its competitive advantage among the 6,000+ hospitals in the US, and he discussed how all their medical services are provided “under one umbrella.” Mayo Clinic houses virtually every specialty in medicine, and this is fruitful for both patients and physicians. Often, if a patient has three medical issues, they have to visit four different doctors at four different facilities. At Mayo, patients receive a highly connected, coordinated care plan.

No one wants to be at the hospital, and Mayo Clinic knows this, which is why they have created a hospital environment in which the healing begins as soon as you walk in. Their buildings emphasize natural light, mute noise, and minimize the impression of crowding, just to name a few. Keeping the noise level to a minimum is a top priority, as noise is a significant patient stressor. Dr. Berry says many may not realize that moving a portable x-ray machine near a patient room creates the same level of noise as driving a motorcycle right outside the room. For kids, Mayo has embedded animal tracks in the carpet, guiding their young patients to their rooms. They even have water fountains as low as 18 inches so that not even toddlers feel left out! As Dr. Berry says, “Mayo Clinic is really good at majoring in minors… because the little things add up.” 

Whether there is a public health crisis that shakes the world or a personal health crisis that shakes your world, the Mayo Clinic will always be a symbol of hope. The compassionate culture ingrained in Mayo has created a hospital where employees want to finish the job rather than look at the clock. Stories of exceptional gentleness by Mayo employees are numerous, and each one shows us what is possible when the needs of the patient always come first. To conclude this article, I would like to share one story Dr. Berry includes in his book, describing a 91-year-old woman’s visit to the emergency room after suffering a fall. The elder woman came into the ER with her daughter, a Mayo employee, and they were seen by Dr. Luis Haro. As Dr. Haro examined her, he asked if the woman could stand up and take a few steps. As she took a few steps, she bumped into Dr. Haro. With her wit, she said, “Well, I suppose we could waltz.” To which Dr. Haro replied with “Yes, we could” before taking her into his arms and waltzing a few steps. In her letter to Mayo describing the story, the patient’s daughter says, “My mother was absolutely enchanted as she loves to dance, and I started to cry. The sight of this tiny fragile old woman being waltzed around the room by this most handsome young man was just too much… this is the caliber of doctor we have here, someone whose medical expertise is a given but whose compassion and kindness are extraordinary.” 

I spoke with Dr. Leonard Berry, co-author of Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic, about what makes Mayo Clinic a phenomenal health system.