Change agent

Dr. Arti Prasad, the new chief of internal medicine for Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, hopes to take integrative health to the next level in Minnesota

Dr. Arti Prasad
Dr. Arti Prasad. Photo by Tracy Walsh

How does a little girl decide she wants to be a doctor when she grows up?

For Arti Prasad, it all started in the garden. Born in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, she grew up in a subtropical climate that was rich with plant life. She loved helping her mother in the family garden. As she worked, she talked.

“I would say to the plants, ‘How are you doing? Yesterday you were a little bud, but today you are flowering. Make sure you flower well. Do you need any water? I love you,’” she would say.

Of course, with all that love and attention, her plants grew beautifully.

It also makes sense that a little girl — who was so deeply invested in the health of the natural world around her — would grow into a physician with a keen interest in the growing field of integrative medicine.

Arti Prasad, shown in a childhood picture, grew up in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where she remembers tending plants in the family garden.

Today, Prasad is 56, lives in Edina and is the new chief of the Department of Internal Medicine for Hennepin Healthcare, which includes the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) in downtown Minneapolis; a network of clinics, including the new Clinic & Specialty Center right across the street from the hospital; plus an outpatient division offering home care, hospice and more throughout Hennepin County.

Prasad, who started in her post last fall, is also a professor of internal medicine and vice chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of Minnesota.

She came to Minneapolis from the University of New Mexico (UNM), where she was on staff for 22 years, most recently as chief of general internal, geriatrics and integrative medicine. She also founded the university’s Center for Life, which is focused on holistic and integrative medicine.

Prasad’s appointment to her Hennepin Healthcare post is remarkable: She’s one of only a handful of women heading an internal medicine department at a major teaching/research institution. Rarer still is her specialty practice in integrative health, which incorporates other methods of healing, including acupuncture, body work/massage, meditation, stress management, herbal medicines and dietary changes.

Prasad knew there was one factor that might make a move to Minnesota a non-starter: It meant leaving a place where the average January high temperature was 49 degrees (Albuquerque) for a region with an average January high of 22 degrees, not to mention an average monthly snowfall of 12 inches.

“I decided to ignore the cold,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘What do you want to do with the next 10 years of your life? Can you take this on?’ And decided I could.”

Dr. Arti Prasad. Photo by Tracy Walsh

Early encouragement

Prasad’s career path of becoming a doctor was at least partly inspired by her supportive family.

“We are a family of engineers,” she said. “My two brothers are engineers, as was my father, and my sister is a professor of geography. My mother only completed high school, but she had a vision for all her children to be well educated. She wanted a physician in the family, so she encouraged me to think about medicine as a career.”

Her mother also taught them English grammar, which she had learned from her father, who had worked as a personal assistant for the chairman of the British India Corporation.

Prasad said her mother was her earliest role model.

“Leadership was my mother’s gift to me. She didn’t have much formal education, but she was a leader at home, in the community, for my family and for my extended family,” Prasad said. “She was a super organizer, and she believed in doing the right thing.”

Arti Prasad’s parents, Satish and Saroj Varma, were photographed shortly after their marriage in the 1950s.

The journey begins

With a medical career that began 8,000 miles away at the Ghandi Medical College in Bhopal, India, Prasad has traveled far to reach her current position — literally and figuratively.

Her early training to be a doctor was based on the British system of medical education. She had recently completed her schooling and internship when, in the second year of her residency, she agreed to an arranged marriage with Sudhakar Prasad, who was a professor of physics at the University of New Mexico. They met in June 1988 and married that November at the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, where their spiritual teacher lived.

Yes, an arranged marriage — Prasad knows her Western friends often find that a challenging concept to grasp.

“It’s arranged, not blindfolded,” she said. “Marriages in India happen between families, not individuals. My family had been working to arrange a match for me, and every week my mother and I would sit down and she would show me the prospects. When I saw Sudhakar’s picture, I said, ‘Mother, I think this is going to be the one.’”

He and his family arrived for a visit, and by the time they left, a few hours later, they had agreed to an engagement ceremony.

“You have to have a lot of trust in yourself, your intended partner and your families,” she said. “You must work hard. It’s called love after marriage.”

Her husband is now an emeritus professor at UNM and a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches physics and conducts research in optical imaging. After 30 years of marriage, it might be safe to call this particular match a success.

“He’s my role model and my biggest fan,” Prasad said.

The couple have two daughters: Pritha, 29, is completing a Ph.D. in rhetoric, composition and literacy studies at Ohio State and recently accepted a job offer for a tenure-track faculty position at a major university; Kriti, 23, graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and will be attending medical school in the fall.

Family is clearly very important to Prasad, who said, “My daughters are real teachers. They have taught us so much in our lives.”

Arti and Sudhakar Prasad, who wed more than 30 years ago, pose with their daughters, Kriti, 23 (left), and Pritha, 29 (right), at a wedding in Michigan.

The work ahead

Prasad wasn’t looking for a move when a headhunter called her about the position at Hennepin Healthcare, but she was interested right away.

“I asked, ‘Why do you need me?’ and found they were looking for a leader and a change agent,” she said. “I’m a well-prepared, thoughtful person.”

And — some might say — if ever something needs to be changed or reformed, it’s our current system of health care.

Prasad, undeterred, has big goals: “I want to take integrative health to the next level, to make integrative medicine invisible and ‘infused’ throughout the system,” she said. “We need to keep people out of the hospital as much as possible, and to do that, all our systems need to work together.”

Her aim is to stop disease before it starts.

“I’m very focused on prevention,” she said. “We don’t just need early detection of diseases, which the screening tests do, but we need true prevention before the disease has started to show up, and that means we need to learn how to eat well, live well more naturally and practice self-care.”

Dr. Arti Prasad stops for a portrait at Hennepin Healthcare’s new Clinic & Specialty Center, which opened in March 2018 in downtown Minneapolis to bring 26 primary and specialty care clinics under one roof. Photo by Tracy Walsh

Bedside manner

It’s clear that Prasad’s passion for integrative care extends to all areas of her work.

Michelle Hale, who worked with Prasad at Center for Life for many years, said she has a special way of providing health care.

“She is amazingly focused on her patients, really listens to and empathizes with them, and empowers them with the information and tools they need to engage in their own self-healing,” Hale said. “She is an amazing physician.”

Twenty years ago, Prasad attended the same medical conference as Dr. Kathleen Burke, a family medicine doctor in Las Cruces, New Mexico. When it was time to pick up the boxed lunches, Burke took the last vegetarian meal. When Prasad asked her to share, Burke agreed to split her lunch with her fellow vegetarian, and a friendship was made.

“She quickly brought out the best in me,” Burke said.

Burke said Prasad made the University of New Mexico a better place.

“Arti is a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “She’s a strong, solid woman with good ideas and fervent beliefs. She wants what’s best for the system — for the patients, staff, fellow professionals, administration and the community as a whole. And she will work hard to build that system.”

Prasad’s focus on integrated medicine emphasizes treating the whole person rather than, for example, one organ system, and might even include addressing the emotional, functional, spiritual, social/community aspects of a patient’s well-being.

Within the integrative medicine space, integrative oncology is one of Prasad’s areas of specialty. It involves helping not just cancer patients but also survivors of acute cancer treatments, who often still have whole-body-mind-spirit healing left to do — long after the cancer is gone.

“I work with them to address gaps in cancer care,” Prasad said, standing with pride in front of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Hennepin Healthcare’s new Clinic & Specialty Center. “That’s the healing work I do. I love it.”

Hennepin Healthcare

What is Hennepin Healthcare?

Hennepin Healthcare is an integrated system of care that includes:

  • HCMC — a 484-bed academic medical center/acute-care hospital, which includes a nationally recognized Level I Adult and Pediatric Trauma Center;
  • A clinic system with primary-care clinics in Minneapolis and across Hennepin County, including a new outpatient Clinic & Specialty Center (above) that opened across the street from the hospital in 2018, featuring 26 primary and specialty care clinics under one roof;
  • A large psychiatric program;
  • Home care and hospice programs;
  • A research institute;
  • And a philanthropic foundation.

The system is home to many physicians who teach at the University of Minnesota Medical School and serves as a major accredited education and training institution for graduates, residency students and fellowship recipients.

Operated by Hennepin Healthcare System, Inc. (a subsidiary corporation of Hennepin County), Hennepin Healthcare is open to anyone, including low-income, uninsured and vulnerable residents.

Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.