Prathibha Varkey, M.B.B.S., always knew she'd be a doctor. It runs in the family.
Both her mother and father were physicians in her hometown of Kerala, India. And each morning, the Varkey family — Prathibha, her parents and two older sisters — gathered at 5:30 a.m. at the dining table. Her father believed it was important to have family meals together. So the Varkey family congregated in the pre-dawn hour before he headed to the hospital as the chair of Vascular Surgery. Prathibha's mother served as chair of Biochemistry before retraining to become a family medicine physician in her late 50s.
Those conversations shaped Prathibha, who felt called to help others on their journeys of illness and healing.
"I have not thought of any career other than medicine," she says, reflecting back. "Since I was 5, I've dreamed about being part of the broader family of physicians."
She chuckles remembering the time when she was 8 and made her first diagnosis — a minor fungal infection that her mother then confirmed.
A servant leader
Driven to find answers, Prathibha became Dr. Varkey by completing medical school in India followed by an internal medicine residency at what is now known as the Yale New Haven Hospital Saint Raphael Campus in Connecticut, and a preventive medicine fellowship at Mayo Clinic. She also earned master's degrees from the Harvard School of Public Health, the University of Illinois Chicago and the University of Minnesota at different points throughout her career.
In 2002, she joined Mayo Clinic as a member of the Department of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota. She spearheaded the department's efforts in faculty development, led several programs in medical education and served as the 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 subsequently, president and CEO of the Northeast Medical Group at Yale New Haven Health.
In August 2021, Dr. Varkey rejoined Mayo as the president of Mayo Clinic Health System. In this role, she partners with Mary Jo Williamson, chief administrative officer of Mayo Clinic Health System, to lead 16 hospitals and 46 community clinics across Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
"For me, this was a return back home to Mayo Clinic," Dr. Varkey says. "I've always admired and learned from the relentless pursuit of excellence that is the hallmark of Mayo Clinic, and it is an honor to be part of the Mayo family again."
Leading through values
Mayo Clinic's transformational vision inspires Dr. Varkey.
The energetic focus on going beyond excellence and creating the next generation of health care shows up in Mayo Clinic's digital health efforts, platform opportunities and artificial intelligence innovations.
After seven years away, Dr. Varkey appreciates Mayo remaining 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 ahead of everything else," she says. "And that truly frees us up to focus on the right things, to have the right discussions at leadership levels, as well as on the front line, about doing what's best for our patients. This is what really sets Mayo apart. It's that simple and powerful."
A lot to look forward to
Dr. Varkey recognizes an opportunity for Mayo to enhance community health care into a category of one as Mayo Clinic Health System enacts its "Bold. Forward." strategy.
Her vision includes further establishing Mayo Clinic Health System as the leader in transforming rural and population health and building on partnerships with communities, academia, businesses and payers.
Dr. Varkey points to new programs and innovations that have been successfully piloted at Mayo Clinic Health System locations.
In 2021, for example, Mayo Clinic Health System added mobile clinics in its Minnesota communities. This brought both primary and specialty care to patients in outlying communities and integrated advancements in digital health with in-person visits. These efforts are especially beneficial in communities where there is limited access to health care.
Additionally, Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was an early adopter of Mayo Clinic Advanced Care at Home, a new care model that delivers innovative, comprehensive and complex care to patients who would otherwise be admitted to the hospital — all from the comfort of home via a new technology platform.
Projects such as Mayo Clinic Advanced Care at Home as well as integrating artificial intelligence to transform the clinical practice and becoming a hub for community-based education and research represent a slice of the potential that excites Dr. Varkey.
She sees the Mayo Clinic Health System of the future as a leading-edge, cost-effective and sustainable health care organization.
"Our family’s mission and the way I was raised was to create sustainable change in the communities where we live," Dr. Varkey says. "That is 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 played a large role in the decision to rejoin Mayo Clinic. She and her husband see the benefits of raising their daughter in the Midwest and the strong communities anchored there.
Still a morning person, Dr. Varkey now starts her days early with meditation. She also uses those early quiet hours to review strategies and priorities and think about key connections she wants to make in the day ahead.
During these times of reflection, she considers a rock that sits on her desk, known as mookaite. It was a memento gifted to her from fellow hikers on a trip to New Zealand that represents strength amid change and transformation.
And it's the opportunity to change and transform health care that brought her back to Mayo Clinic.
"Health care is not so much a career, but a calling for me," Dr. Varkey says. "It's an honor and a humbling experience to be part of the health care transformation journey at Mayo Clinic Health System."