Prathibha Varkey, MBBS always knew she would be a doctor. It runs in the family.
His mother and father were doctors in his hometown of Kerala, India. And every morning, the Varkey family – Prathibha, her parents and her two older sisters – met at 5:30 a.m. at the dining table. Her father believed it was important to have family meals together. So the Varkey family gathered before dawn before he went to the hospital as chairman of vascular surgery. Prathibha’s mother served as chair of biochemistry before retraining to become a family doctor in her late 50s.
These conversations shaped Prathibha, who felt called to help others on their journey to illness and recovery.
“I didn’t think of any career other than medicine,” she says, reminiscing. “Since the age of 5, I have dreamed of being part of the great family of doctors.”
She laughs as she remembers when she was 8 and made her first diagnosis – a minor fungal infection which her mother later confirmed.
A servant leader
Driven to find answers, Prathibha became Dr. Varkey by completing medical school in India, followed by a residency in internal medicine at what is now known as Yale New Haven Hospital Saint Raphael Campus in Connecticut, and a preventive medicine fellowship at the Mayo Clinic. She also earned master’s degrees from the Harvard School of Public Health, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Minnesota at various points in her career.
In 2002, she joined the Mayo Clinic as a member of the Department of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota. She led the department’s efforts in faculty development, directed several medical education programs, and served as president of the American College of Medical Quality.
She left in 2013 to become president and CEO of Seton Clinical Enterprise in Austin, Texas, and then president and CEO of Northeast Medical Group at Yale New Haven Health.
In August 2021, Dr. Varkey joined Mayo as President of Mayo Clinic Health System. In this role, she partners with Mary Jo Williamson, administrative director of the Mayo Clinic Health System, to lead 16 hospitals and 46 community clinics in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“For me, it was a ride home to the Mayo Clinic,” says Dr. Varkey. “I have always admired and learned from the relentless pursuit of excellence that is the hallmark of Mayo Clinic, and it is an honor to once again be part of the Mayo family.”
Lead by values
The Mayo Clinic’s transformational vision inspires Dr. Varkey.
The forceful focus on surpassing excellence and creating the next generation of healthcare is evident in Mayo Clinic’s digital health efforts, platform opportunities and artificial intelligence innovations .
After seven years away, Dr. Varkey appreciates that Mayo remains a patient-centered organization.
“What sets Mayo apart is our culture. It’s our relentless focus on excellence, but also our relentless focus on patient care — we keep that above all else,” she says. “And that really frees us up to focus on the right things, to have the right discussions at the leadership level, as well as on the front lines, to do what’s best for our patients. That’s what that really sets Mayo apart. It’s that simple and powerful.”
A lot to expect
Dr. Varkey recognizes an opportunity for Mayo to improve community health care in a unique category as the Mayo Clinic Health System enacts its “Bold. Forward.” strategy.
His vision includes continuing to establish the Mayo Clinic Health System as a leader in transforming the health of rural populations and building partnerships with communities, universities, businesses and payers.
Dr. Varkey highlights new programs and innovations that have been successfully tested at Mayo Clinic Health System sites.
In 2021, for example, Mayo Clinic Health System added mobile clinics to its Minnesota communities. This brought primary and specialist care to patients in outlying communities and integrated advances in digital health with in-person visits. These efforts are particularly beneficial in communities where access to health care is limited.
Additionally, Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was an early adopter Mayo Clinic Advanced Care at Home, a new model of care that provides innovative, comprehensive and complex care to patients who would otherwise be admitted to hospital, all from the comfort of their own home via a new technology platform.
Projects such as Mayo Clinic Advanced home care along with the integration of artificial intelligence to transform clinical practice and become a hub for community education and research is a slice of the potential that excites Dr. Varkey.
She sees the Mayo Clinic healthcare system of the future as a cutting-edge, cost-effective, and sustainable healthcare organization.
“Our family’s mission and the way I was raised was to create lasting change in the communities where we live,” says Dr. Varkey. “It’s at the core of who I am as a person and as a leader.”
A new routine
Now back in Minnesota, Dr. Varkey is settling into her new routine, along with her husband and baby daughter who were instrumental in the decision to join the Mayo Clinic. She and her husband see the benefits of raising their daughter in the Midwest and the strong communities rooted there.
Always a morning person, Dr. Varkey now starts his days early with meditation. She also uses these quiet early hours to review strategies and priorities and think about the key connections she wants to make in the day ahead.
During these moments of thought, she considers a rock sitting on her desk, known as a mookaite. It was a keepsake given to him by other hikers on a trip to New Zealand that represents strength in the midst of change and transformation.
And it was the opportunity to change and transform healthcare that brought her back to the Mayo Clinic.
“For me, health care is not so much a career as a calling,” says Dr. Varkey. “It is an honor and a humbling experience to be part of the healthcare transformation journey at Mayo Clinic Health System.”