The Founding of SPARC

In the early 2000s, Dr. Nicholas LaRusso was chair and Dr. Michael Brennan was an associate chair of Mayo's Department of Medicine. As they discussed the challenges faced by their department, they wondered if the care delivery process might be subjected to methodical study. Brennan recalled,

…in the research realm, a hypothesis is developed and then reviewed, and if it has merit, it may then go to the research committee, which may then approve of using the research center, where clinical studies can be conducted. The studies are done, analyzed, reported, and that is the cycle. And I think that is a very important part of any academic medical center. It's how knowledge is advanced. But we never had something similar that can study the processes by which care is delivered. So we thought, well, why not?

They realized that their vision could be expanded by consulting with specialists outside of the medical field, so they asked design firm IDEO how they might go about studying doctor-patient interactions. Then, in collaboration with IDEO, HGA Architects and Engineers, and Steelcase office furniture company, LaRusso and Brennan set up a small skunkworks laboratory called SPARC, an acronym for See, Plan, Act, Refine, Communicate. With the credibility that they commanded as leaders of the largest department at Mayo, they recruited other interested physicians, who became known as "Friends of SPARC," they obtained funding from a generous benefactor, and they hired several designers to work with them.

Then LaRusso, Brennan, and the SPARC team began the process of examining the flow of patient care, including the ways in which patients used waiting areas, what patients and family expected from their interactions with providers, and new ways to integrate technology. The goal was to improve the patient’s experience and make the processes of delivering health care more efficient.

In its first two years the SPARC lab undertook more than 20 projects, including a redesign of patient exam rooms, a waiting room check-in kiosk similar to those at an airport, and a new system of education cards for diabetes patients.






Watch Dr. LaRusso, Dr. Brennan, and IDEO CEO Tim Brown recall the early discussions that led to the founding of SPARC (YouTube version for slow connection).


Read a brochure describing the early work of the SPARC lab.