A neurosurgeon returns to Louisiana focused on public health

October 12, 2011 — Anil Nanda did not really need to seek a master’s degree in public health.

He’s quite accomplished in his field already; Nanda is chief of neurosurgery at Shreveport’s Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, an academic center for medicine and medical research in North Louisiana. He became chief in 1990, when he was just 31, and when the neurosurgery program achieved department status in 1995 he was named its first chair. He’s widely published; has held numerous leadership roles in national neurological organizations; and has performed more than 2,000 surgeries on aneurysms and skull base tumors.

Still, Nanda was ready to take on a new challenge. “I think intellectual cross-pollination and stimulation is extremely important,” Nanda explained during his last week at HSPH in late August, before heading back to Louisiana after studying quantitative methods. “Otherwise you don’t get new ideas. It’s like ‘sharpening the blade.’ ”

Nanda’s HSPH experience also sharpened his focus on improving public health in Louisiana. Over the past year he was a major force behind new legislation in that state mandating that young athletes who suffer head injuries be examined for concussion before returning to the field. He worked closely with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and the NFL’s New Orleans Saints on the new law, which went into effect in late June.

“Football in Louisiana is like a religion,” said Nanda. “We have a lot of catastrophic football injuries. And the coaches tend to be macho, putting players back in concussion after concussion. Now, the coach can’t determine if a player goes back in—the player has to be medically cleared.”

To work toward a degree while keeping up with his demanding job, Nanda has studied at Harvard for six-week periods over the course of three summers. “I call it my ‘Boston ashram experience,’ says Nanda. “I went from my zone of comfort to a zone of anonymity. I enjoyed it—I had no TV, a one-bedroom apartment, no car. It was very austere.”

He traveled home every other weekend to perform surgeries. He’d leave Boston on Thursday night, operate Friday and Saturday, and return on Sunday. He held videoconferences with members of his neurosurgery department twice a week.

He didn’t mind being busy, though, because his experience at HSPH was, he says, “a real feast intellectually. There was a cornucopia of amazing speakers—some of the best and the brightest.” He particularly enjoyed his class “Current Issues in Health Policy,” taught by Arnold Epstein, chair of the HSPH Department of Health Policy and Management, and instructor Anthony Komaroff, editor-in-chief of Harvard Health Publications. Of one of the featured guest speakers—former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis—Nanda said, “At a time when the political debate is so divisive and so ideological, it was refreshing to hear someone with such a passionate devotion to public service.”

This past summer, Nanda was a frequent attendant at HSPH’s Hot Topics lectures. He looked like any other student, dressed in khakis and a sport shirt, a backpack by his side. “I didn’t have to wear a tie for six weeks!” he said, smiling.

Nanda hopes to become more involved in statewide public health measures in Louisiana, citing reducing the rate at which patients contract infections in hospitals and improving end-of-life care. “Being here, you develop a devotion to the public health cause,” he said. “I’m used to operating on one person for hours. But I now see that societal health is also very important.”

–Karen Feldscher