Dr. Prathibha Varkey: Mayo Clinic Health System's new president on persistence, grit and courage

Dr. Prathibha Varkey returned to Mayo Clinic in August as president of the Mayo Clinic Health System, which serves communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. She previously practiced medicine and served in several leadership roles at Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic for more than a decade before leaving in 2013 to pursue CEO roles at Seton Clinical Enterprise in Austin, Texas, and Northeast Medical Group within Yale New Haven (Conn.) Health.

Dr. Varkey spoke with Becker's in December about her goals for the first year of her new role and the lessons she's learned as a leader in healthcare.

Question: What are your goals and priorities as president over the next year?

Dr. Prathibha Varkey: The primary objective is to lead Mayo Clinic Health System to a category of one in rural health, population health and next-generation community care. We are the community branch of the Mayo Clinic enterprise and delight in providing Mayo Clinic care close to home.

Q: How do you plan to navigate this issue of healthcare misinformation in your new role?

PV: Since the beginning of the pandemic our researchers, scientists and physicians have really been working very closely with community leaders and with our community of staff to be at the forefront of vaccine development, testing and disseminating evidence-based information accurately and as quickly as possible. We've really seen it as our role regionally, nationally and globally to be the advocates in providing this information accurately and expediently in partnerships with our communities. We have done that through traditional communication methods but also through social media and through hosting a variety of town halls, opinion letters and frequent engagements with our community. 

One of the core issues about this evolving pandemic is that the information about prevention, treatment and frankly the virus is also evolving. Hence, I think it's very critical that as leading healthcare providers and institutions, we continue to remain focused on evidence-based medicine and continue to advocate in providing evidence-based information expediently to our communities.

Q: Will there be executive roles specifically designed to handle cultural challenges like the ones we've seen over the last 21 months?

PV: That's a great question. I think the pandemic has really taught us that, in addition to being focused on grit, creativity and transformation, compassion and frequent communication have also become key roles for executives. I think a focus explicitly on healthcare disparities and understanding racism and some of the social context of change that's occurring in the country has also become very critical. Encouraging and inspiring our often fatigued staff in the midst of this unrelenting pandemic to focus on transformation, despite some of the challenges, also becomes critical to continue a focus on the future. I think healthcare as a whole will be better because of some of the transformation activities that have had to occur as a result of this pandemic. 

The other issue that was brought to light with the pandemic is the need to focus on our communities beyond just the patients that come to us in our clinics and hospitals. So, that proactive approach to population health, prevention, testing, and taking care of wellness and health, in addition to illness has become paramount. 

Q: A statistic came out recently that said only 15 percent of healthcare leadership roles are held by women. What advice do you have for women who want to hold executive positions in the industry? 

PV: Close to 70 percent of individuals who make decisions about healthcare for families are women, and about a similar proportion of the workforce in healthcare are women, but there continues to be a significant discrepancy in terms of women in senior roles nationally. 

My advice to aspiring women leaders: Approach opportunities with grit and courage; be fearless in execution and persistent despite evolving challenges. There is so much opportunity to transform healthcare right now. We ourselves, as healthcare institutions, have learned so much and grown so much over the last couple of years, and we really need diversity in terms of thought perspective in leadership, in driving healthcare and healthcare agendas forward. And I think women and diversity in leadership will take us much further in terms of these opportunities. 

Q:  What would you say have been the two biggest challenges you've had to overcome in your career? 

PV: I like to think of challenges more like learning lessons in my journey, and they've really been all about persistence. Don't give up. It's really about being persistent in communication for the need for positive change and then enabling the teams and people to drive change. 

The one other lesson I would like to share is to look outside of the healthcare industry to learn from other organizations on what can be done to create change and transformation, as well as creating a platform for collaborative partnerships in solving issues. 

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