GTD and The Invention of the Medical Record

In my work with Mayo Clinic in news media relations, I always look for applications of the principles of Mayo’s medical practice. Mayo Clinic is the first and largest integrated, not-for-profit group practice in the world. I figure the same principles that make Mayo Clinic successful as a medical practice would be likely to lead to success in relations with news media, too…and in my personal life. Or at least they would be a good place to start.

One of Mayo Clinic’s innovations, just over 100 years ago, was the unified patient record. In that day it was revolutionary to even think of physicians working in teams instead of taking individual responsibility for their patients. But Dr. William Mayo and Dr. Charles Mayo knew what they didn’t know, and that knowledge in medicine was growing so rapidly that they needed to combine the expertise of others to get the best results for their patients. As Dr. Will put it, “…In order that the sick may have the benefit of advancing knowledge, union of forces is necessary.”

The Mayo brothers saw that to have that “union of forces” it also was necessary to have a centralized medical record for each patient, instead of each physician keeping notes in a journal. One of the early Mayo partners, Dr. Henry Plummer, developed this pioneering system that is taken for granted today. It wasn’t obvious at the time.

Now Mayo Clinic has a completely electronic version of the medical record, which enables specialists to collaborate even more efficiently, because they can be looking at the same patient’s records and images, even if they aren’t together in the same office…or even in the same state.

How does this relate to GTD and “stress-free productivity?” David Allen says an external, trusted system is essential. You can’t keep it all in your head. You need to put your information into a system that you know you will review regularly, and from which you will be able to get the information when you need it. With that, you can be “in the moment” and focus on what you’re doing right then, instead of thinking about what you’re not doing.

Mayo Clinic is able to efficiently diagnose and treat more than 500,000 patients a year because its systems are organized so every piece of information needed is available at the point of care delivery, and because processes are set up to get data into the system quickly, easily and completely. Caregivers know and trust that all of the information is in the system. That, and the salaried model for compensation, enables physicians to take as much time as they need with each patient, without feeling stressed and hurried.

So how have we applied this to our media relations work? Our media relations team has developed a similar system for press calls, so when a journalist calls for a comment from one of Mayo’s medical or scientific subject experts, or in response to a news release, we can track what happened with that call. It’s a trusted system, because every call we receive is entered into it.

That’s probably why GTD resonated with me so much, and why I just took the plunge after reading the book on my plane ride home from Jacksonville.

Taking the time to organize a system really fits with Mayo Clinic’s heritage, too. When Dr. Plummer invented the centralized medical record in early 1907, he just disappeared for a few days to do it. When he came back, he had invented the basic structure that is still used today, nearly 100 years later. I suppose he could have just said he was too busy with the press of patients to see, that he couldn’t make time to get away and do this planning. But patients all over the world are better off because he made the time.

Your investment of time in establishing your GTD system probably won’t have such an enormous payoff for all of humanity as Dr. Plummer’s did. But who knows? Maybe it will.

It will make a long-term difference for you personally. By developing a system that lets you make your decisions up front about where different kinds of information should go, you will save a huge amount of time in your everyday life. You won’t find yourself caught in dilemmas, wasting time trying to decide where a given bit of information belongs. You will have some rules and structure that reduce these collecting and processing decisions to a snap, because you’ll know where things should go.

It is practically necessary to have both paper records and electronic systems for organizing your life. Paper isn’t going away, and virtually everyone today also needs a system for tracking the electronic inputs, too…e-mail, at a minimum. In a future post I will look at systems for both physical and virtual organization.

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Author: Lee Aase

Husband of one, father of six, grandfather of 15. Chancellor Emeritus, SMUG. Emeritus staff of Mayo Clinic. Founder of HELPcare and Administrator for HELPcare Clinic.

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