October 6, 2004

The Global Lessons of Mayo Clinic

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report


ROCHESTER, MN -- Glossy in-company magazines don't usually grab my attention, but these two sentences from the winter issue of Mayo Magazine were relevant to this column and stopped me dead in my tracks: "Our work at Mayo is becoming more technical all the time. How do we keep a humanistic focus?"

It struck me that right here in our community is an institution that's grappling, in practical terms, with the greatest question that faces humanity today.

But what really got me is where Mayo sends a group of 10 employees and their spouses every year to seek answers to this question: to the hills of Assisi, in central Italy, where St. Francis spent his life serving the poor and the sick and, legends says, attracting every kind of animal -- from starving wolves to half-frozen bees -- which come to him for food and shelter.

From the beginning, Mayo Clinic has seemed instinctively to know that a great part of the world's wisdom -- probably its greater part -- lies in the world beyond our nation's borders. Will and Charlie Mayo, the clinic's founders, made 40 trips to Europe and South America during their career. And these were the days when it took a week on an ocean liner to cross the Atlantic. The commitment to internationalism was there.

The next-best thing to traveling the world was inviting foreign doctors and medical scholars to visit Rochester to teach, and sometimes to join, the Mayo staff. A steady stream of international visitors is part of Mayo Clinic's DNA.

Economic Jewel

A Mayo brat myself, while growing up I met visitors from Russia, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Mexico, France, Japan, China, the Philippines and a dozen other places. I grew up feeling like a citizen of the world.

It's not something touchy-feely that I'm talking about here. It's something practical. The fact that Rochester has thrived through many economic ups and downs, including the Great Depression, means there was something in Will and Charlie's early insistence that Mayo Clinic would have an international character that has been critical to its success.

As a 2002 report published by the University of Ohio concluded, Mayo Clinic has been central in making Olmsted County "an economic jewel rising from the prairie lands of southeastern Minnesota."

Why? Its "knowledge-based economy" that largely traces to Mayo Clinic, the report said, "places southeast Minnesota in a key strategic position for the 21st century."

Just last week, the clinic said that its new tissue and blood testing laboratory on Superior Drive will match, and probably surpass, the number of employees who worked in the building when it was owned by Celestica, a high-tech company that laid off 700 employees. Many of those blood and tissues samples flown in daily are from hospitals and clinics overseas.

Global Markets

Ultimately, those are potentially much bigger markets than even America's enormous markets. To be linked to them now, and to grow as they grow, helps to ensure Mayo's -- and Rochester's -- long-term success.

Mayo's international patient traffic is the most commonly cited indicator of its reliance on global markets. But in many ways, it is the least important of Mayo's global connections. The way Mayo roams the world to attract the smartest doctors, researchers, and administrators is the real story.

International patients only bring dollars to Mayo Clinic. Its international staff and professional visitors bring it infinitely more -- that is, the "knowledge" in the "knowledge-based economy."

Only it's not just knowledge. It's wisdom, and it's experience. It's the wisdom of having grown up in Asia where parents are revered throughout old age, and then giving medical treatment with precisely that kind of gentle reverence to an ailing grandmother from Kasson, Byron, or Albert Lea.

Pilgrimage

That's the kind of stuff that has brought people back to the Mayo Clinic for decades. And they are still coming back.

So how do we maintain the human touch in an increasingly technological age? Mayo's example gives strong hints. Welcome the foreigner. Celebrate the immigrant. Learn from both. Grow from both.

And, make a pilgrimage. Thousands every year come to Mayo to be healed and transformed. When we go overseas and meet people who we discover are different from us but the same, we too can be healed and transformed.

And in that way, we can keep our humanistic focus.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report