Family Practice: Couple's hard work pays off as Gwinnett Clinic continues to grow

 LAWRENCEVILLE — J.J. and Meena J. Shah had a modest plan: start a medical practice together, work hard and always put the patient first.

The husband-and-wife team, who met while attending medical school in India, launched Gwinnett Clinic in 1983, with two locations, one in Lawrenceville, the other in Lilburn.

For more than a decade, the practices held their own, with J.J. as the orthope- dic specialist and Meena as the family practitioner. But 10 years ago, Gwin- nett Clinic faced its first big hurdle, when a Georgia managed care group was shutting out a large number of orthopedic doctors, including J.J., by awarding business only to a select few.

J.J. saw his orthopedic practice suf- fer a 40 percent drop in business, though Meena’s patient base was still growing.

At the same time, they noticed many patients were coming to them after spending long nights waiting in the emergency room for relatively minor injuries and illnesses, such as sprained ankles and stomach aches.

J.J. would tell them: “You should have just come here to begin with. It would have saved you a lot of time and

Then something clicked.

What if they expanded the hours of Meena’s family prac- tice on weekdays and week- ends for patients who needed a doctor after most medical offices were closed?

“It was time-consuming and expensive, for both patients and the insurance companies,” J.J. said of the way people were going to crowded emer- gency rooms for non-life threatening injuries and sick- nesses. If the clinic stayed open on weekends, J.J. thought, it could also benefit the 9-to-5 workers who didn’t have time to see a doctor dur- ing the work week.

J.J. and Meena launched their expanded-hour Gwinnett Clinic in 1995, with 13,000 patients enrolled. Now, they have 140,000, with 1,500 new patients seen each month. The staff has grown from six to 139 over that time, and 12 Gwin- nett Clinics are up and run- ning, with an expanded clinic on the way in Monroe and new clinics planned near Snellville, in Duluth and in Tucker.

“We never thought it would grow into something this large,” J.J. Shah said. When asked how their concept took off so quickly, J.J. gives all the credit to patients, saying, “They are our boss.”

While other metro Atlanta clinics have extended hours, most have just one or two locations. Hospitals, such as Gwinnett Medical Center, have thought about introduc- ing expanded-hour clinics, but the business model is difficult to follow.

Wayne Sikes, chairman of Gwinnett Health System Inc., said the nonprofit shied away from extended-hour clinics because it was too hard to find doctors to work late or on weekends. Hospital standards for such clinics also add to the challenge.

“It’s an excellent concept to serve the needs of the commu- nity,” Sikes said. “It’s really impressive the way (the Shahs) have made it work.”

J.J. and Meena divide up the duties of running the business. Meena manages a staff com- posed of 11 nationalities, as diverse as the patients Gwin- nett Clinic sees. J.J. handles

expansion, including new con- struction.

He developed his business philosophy while growing up as the son of a government worker in Baroda, India.

His father — a work place safety inspector — fought government corruption by refusing to take bribes in exchange for overlooking vio- lations. So business owners went to his superiors, who took the money.

His father’s bosses moved up quickly through the govern- ment ranks, but J.J. learned that integrity pays off in the end.

“Nature rewarded him with four beautiful children who went on to become successful and help him retire comfort- ably earlier in his life, while most of his bosses had to work until they were 75,” J.J. said.

“This is one reason I came to the United States. Here, if you are willing to work hard, you can make a good, honest life for yourself and your fam- ily.”