Then and now: Upholding Mayo Clinic’s core values


Communique

From the moment of its official launch on March 17, 1971, Mayo Clinic Laboratories (then known as Mayo Medical Laboratories) had to distinguish itself from other reference labs of the day if it wanted to compete.

"There was one particular lab that was especially competitive at that time,” says Michael O’Sullivan, M.D., who was appointed Mayo Clinic Laboratories’ first medical director and CEO. “They had an excellent staff of biochemical scientists, and they had established and dominated the niche of specialty practice. They set the standard that we wanted to beat, so we wanted to ease into that same niche at first.”


One way Mayo Clinic Laboratories separated itself from the pack early on was by being a nonprofit entity, unlike the half-dozen or so larger reference labs of the day that were publicly traded, for-profit companies.

“Our lab was considered a nonprofit business-related activity,” says Jerry Wollner, who was Mayo Clinic Laboratories’ first chief operating officer and Dr. O’Sullivan’s righthand man in launching this enterprise. “That was one way we could distinguish ourselves, by telling prospective clients that any revenue would go back into education and research rather than in the pockets of shareholders or owners.” 

Michael O'Sullivan, M.D., 1980

Clinical practice

Another differentiating factor was that, as a referral laboratory, Mayo Clinic Laboratories reflected Mayo Clinic’s core values (the “three shields”) of integrated clinical practice, research, and education.

“Mayo has always been acknowledged for taking on the more exceptional patient cases, so we decided to only offer the more esoteric or difficult tests that weren’t commonly done in other communities,” says Wollner. “Another unique service we could offer was surgical pathology second opinion. By the 1970s, Mayo Clinic had been involved in this activity — on a complimentary basis, not as a business — for well over 50 years. And they had a large cadre of surgical pathologists who were highly specialized.”

Pathologists Dr. Lou Woolner and Dr. George Farrow

One such Mayo pathologist was David Dahlin Jr., M.D., who was a leading bone specialist in the country. The unique surgical pathology services and renowned expertise of Mayo Clinic Laboratories were “a major advantage” in attracting clients, according to Wollner. Virtually every pathologist in the U.S. already had some experience with Mayo Clinic for a second opinion, and so these pathology services weren’t hard to sell.   

“Surgical pathology second opinion was such a unique service that we eventually started to charge a fee for it,” says Wollner. “And we never had any major objection to that because clients thought the service was so exceptional.” 

Wollner continues, “When a pathologist or physician at another large hospital had a difficult diagnosis, for example, they could always call Dr. O’Sullivan and he, in turn, could get a physician or a surgeon [from Mayo Clinic] on the line in a three-way call to discuss that case. So that was a unique service that other reference laboratories had a hard time matching.” 

Research and test development

Research also became a distinguishing mark for Mayo Clinic Laboratories right off, particularly in the context of new test development. The lab already had one novel test no one else did: the parathyroid hormone (PTH) assay, which was developed by Mayo consultant Claud Arnaud, M.D., a founding member of the Mayo Endocrine Research Unit. Dr. Arnaud’s work helped Mayo become an international leader in the study of bone and mineral metabolism disorders.     

“We were first on the market with the PTH test, which was a real breakthrough in diagnosis of hyperparathyroidism (overactive parathyroid glands), or hypoparathyroidism,” says Dr. O’Sullivan. “It gave us a fair amount of runway time ahead of everybody else when we were just starting out, because it was very difficult to develop antibodies for human PTH, and no one else succeeded at it for another four or five years. So the importance of research and the ability to develop new tests was further amplified by this.”  

A Mayo research scientist and physician, William “Gene” Mayberry, M.D., also helped Mayo Clinic Laboratories gain a competitive edge. After becoming chair of the department in 1970, Dr. Mayberry led a pioneering research program in thyroid metabolism, which developed novel thyroid tests such as the TSH and T4 assays.     

Education

Mayo Clinic Laboratories also gained a competitive advantage by cultivating a workshop program that covered topics such as endocrine diseases, infectious diseases, surgical pathology, anatomic pathology, and liver pathology. The program appealed to a national audience, fueled by the Mayo Clinic name as well as the caliber of its faculty and state-of-the-art laboratories. The workshops were a way to showcase Mayo Clinic’s unparalleled capabilities to potential clients.

Another educational tool Dr. O’Sullivan implemented was the Mayo Medical Laboratories Handbook. After outlining what he thought it needed to contain, he asked his mentor, Charles Owen, M.D., who was on Mayo’s Board of Governors, to develop it.  

“The handbook featured each test that we carried, and underneath each test name we had a few short paragraphs on how it was used in clinical practice,” says Dr. O’Sullivan. “The paragraphs included the methodology, requirements, and science behind that test. It was as simple as that. Chuck was just an ingenious writer, and he was able to compress all that information into a very usable, readable handbook.”

Continuing medical education was offered starting in 1974, and has been a mainstay of Mayo Clinic Laboratories' mission ever since.

Dr. O’Sullivan continues, “It became an educational tool. Once we sent it to users at other academic institutions, they asked us for more copies to supply their students for use in their clinical pathology and laboratory medicine courses.”

In this way, Mayo Clinic Laboratories’ pathology services were always supported by the Mayo values of practice, research, and education.  

Modernizing while honoring the Mayo values today

The name “Mayo Medical Laboratories” was changed to Mayo Clinic Laboratories in 2018, a landmark rebranding that dovetailed nicely with the Ken Burns documentary, The Mayo Clinic, which aired on PBS that same year.

The rebrand was championed, in part, by William Morice, II, M.D., Ph.D., current president of Mayo Clinic Laboratories and chair of Mayo’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology (DLMP). For Dr. Morice, the new name more closely reflects Mayo Clinic’s values. In fact, the rebrand has helped make those values more public.   

“I think going out there as Mayo Clinic Laboratories helps raise Mayo’s overall visibility even further," says Dr. Morice. “And for the enterprise, it really helps fuel our growth. It clarifies our market position as the largest hospital-based reference laboratory in the United States that enables people to benefit from the diagnostic acumen of the Mayo Clinic.”

Scott Beck is senior vice president at Mayo Clinic Laboratories. “The business that we’ve developed is an extension of the Mayo brand, model of care, and certainly the Mayo model of laboratory care that people on the outside appreciate,” he says. “I think our laboratories have continued to be a very good extension of Mayo’s values and philosophy to clients and patients who may never visit a Mayo campus.”

Furthermore, Dr. Morice, who came to Mayo as an M.D./Ph.D. student in 1987 and started as a resident at DLMP in 1994, always felt that the lab’s name should symbolize its unity with Mayo Clinic.

“There was a perception that the lab was something separate from Mayo, which was a challenge,” he says. “As the lab became more and more successful, our competition would sometimes misrepresent us and say, ‘Well, Mayo Clinic Laboratories is not part of Mayo Clinic.’ The rebrand opened the front door wider to the public. It also better reflects what has always been true, that whether the patient is on our campus or not, they receive the same treatment and care.” 

Today, Mayo Clinic Laboratories is a limited liability corporation and a wholly owned subsidiary of Mayo Clinic. The lab now performs an average of 35,000 tests per day and has over 4,000 national and international clients, a remarkable testament to Dr. O’Sullivan’s original vision: to create a reference lab of such unparalleled, expert pathology services it would become a leading competitor in the industry. “All these years later, that big competitor we were originally trying to beat doesn’t exist anymore,” says Dr. O’Sullivan. “But Mayo Clinic Laboratories does.”    

This article is part of our 50th anniversary series. Learn more about Mayo Clinic Laboratories’ history.

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Chris Bahnsen (@cjbahnsen)

Chris Bahnsen

Christoph Bahn covers emerging research and discovery for Mayo Clinic Laboratories. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Smithsonian Air & Space. He divides his time between Southern California and Northwest Ohio.