Visible Values

Bobbie Gostout, M.D., relies on her roots in leading Mayo Clinic Health System's community-based care model

By Mayo Clinic Staff

The Smith family (left to right, standing to sitting) Bobbie Gostout, M.D., parents Gene and Barb Smith, Mary Lin Wershofen, Beckie Rolbiecki and Vickie Malay back in Rollingstone in 2017.

There's no stoplight to halt traffic on Main Street.

The local diner sits across the thoroughfare from the post office and a feed and grain store. In fact, the entire population of Rollingstone, Minnesota, could fit easily in Landow Atrium of the iconic Gonda Building at Mayo Clinic's Minnesota campus with room to spare.

It's in this tiny town 34 miles as the crow flies from Mayo Clinic Bobbie S. Gostout, M.D., grew up as the middle child of seven — six girls and a boy. It's the values instilled in Rollingstone that propelled her to eventually become a top-flight cancer surgeon for women and that sense of place that directed Dr. Gostout to her biggest role yet — vice president of Mayo Clinic and physician leader of Mayo Clinic Health System.

"Today, I may stand out some in my willingness to take risks and to be bold. When I reflect on that trait, I smile knowing that any boldness I possess comes from growing up with sisters who were freely and happily pushing and nudging me to try new things," Dr. Gostout says.

Those pushes from her sisters were combined with a work ethic demonstrated by their parents, Gene and Barb Smith, as well as the Rollingstone community. Values of integrity and respect resonated in her family.

"I saw those values modeled by my parents and the community that we lived in," Dr. Gostout says. "Rollingstone is very agrarian, a lot of simple, honest living there. I was really surrounded by people who took their work seriously, gave it their best and did it with a sense of joyfulness."

The joyfulness continued in Dr. Gostout, who bucked the trend in her family of being a teacher by instead choosing medicine. Her college courses allowed her to experience Mayo Clinic as a student before graduating, and she was hooked. She joined the institution as a nurse and settled in Rochester. But, a year later, she decided to take the next step — medical school.

The easy choice would have been to attend medical school in the Twin Cities, where her husband, Christopher J. Gostout, M.D., was practicing at the time. Instead, she took the harder route — attending Mayo Medical School, now known as Mayo Clinic School of Medicine. Her husband joined Mayo Clinic's staff 2 1/2 years later. Together the couple balanced the demands of busy medical careers while raising their three sons, Zach, Noah and Christian.

"Mayo Clinic School of Medicine is such a rare place, and I knew enough about it to know how rare it is and to know the idealistic model of medical education that continues to be rolled out in that environment," Dr. Gostout says. "I had seen what nurses do, I'd seen what doctors do, I had seen what every other rank and person does, and I realized that I really wanted to lead the team and I really wanted to be accountable for the relationships and the decisions and the care."

Learning to Lead

From there, Dr. Gostout's work blossomed — she showed a penchant and undeniable talent for surgery and became a sought-out surgeon for gynecological cancers. Her ebullient personality is obvious, and students and the next generation of staff flock to her. Her doctor's door card, to identify what patients are hers, features her sisters, a reminder of the vital role family plays in hope and healing.

"It used to be recommended to keep a professional distance with your patients — that to me is silly," Dr. Gostout says. "I wholeheartedly enjoy being a part of my patients' lives and part of their story and really sharing."

Connections with patients are important, and also connections outside of work.

"My husband and our three sons have been important sources of inspiration and support. Time with them renews me. They make me laugh. We spend time outdoors, and we explore a wide range of nonmedical topics," she says. "In today's world, there's a lot of discussion about physician burnout, and I can happily say I don't have a flicker of burnout. It is a privilege to do this work, and I feel that as much today as I did on the day that I began."

When Mayo Clinic looked for a leader last year for Mayo Clinic Health System, which serves communities in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the institution tapped her to direct more than 16,000 staff members.

It's not a stretch to say people were surprised by her decision to apply.

Dr. Gostout's resume was impeccable. But why would the free-spirited surgeon, who often quotes Max Ehrmann's poem "Desiderata" and was so loved by the women she walked with in their cancer journeys, want to leave most of it behind?

"Leadership is a chance to amplify the things that I'm most passionate about bringing to the patients that we serve at Mayo Clinic," says Dr. Gostout. "There are a lot of people who ask me why I would do this, and my response is always that Mayo Clinic should be led by physicians who absolutely love their practice because it's that passion that helps us get this leadership role right."

Dr. Gostout's induction for Mayo leadership really began at the dinner table as a young girl in Rollingstone. Neither she nor her family ever needed Mayo Clinic as a patient, but it was there nearby, and the message that Mayo held special expertise for people with complex health needs was woven through many family discussions. It is much the way Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus interacts with Mayo Clinic Health System.

A Bright Future

It's also her upbringing that Dr. Gostout can rely on when discussing the unique qualities of practicing rural medicine in the United States, where even the best plans can be influenced or altered by day-to-day changes in the community. Mayo Clinic Health System consists of Mayo-owned clinics, hospitals and other health care facilities that serve the health care needs of people in 66 communities — primarily in small towns — in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The community-based providers, paired with the resources and expertise of Mayo Clinic, enable patients in the region to receive the highest-quality health care close to home. While attracting and retaining top talent to these special posts also poses challenges, Mayo Clinic's patient-centered approach holds a key differentiator.

"Rural medicine is facing some very special challenges," she says. "But we have a phenomenal opportunity here. We can really help physicians serving small communities to know they're also part of the most advanced medical care in the nation."

That connection means Mayo Clinic Health System is set up to excel for patients — providing the right care at the right time for more than 650,000 people yearly.

"What a lucky thing to be able to live in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, or Bloomer, Wisconsin, and to know that you have high-quality Mayo care locally for 90 to 95 percent of your health care needs, and you've also got direct access to the Mayo Clinic campus in Rochester if you need highly complex care," Dr. Gostout says. "It's a pretty amazing system we've built here, and it's only going to get stronger.