Immigrants' prescription for success: Fast, convenient access to medical care pays off

Features Drs. J.J. and Meena Shah 06/26/2002 By D. Aileed Dodd Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gwinnett Section

J.J. Shah sinks into an executive chair behind a cherry wood desk with brass handles and a matching tape dispenser.

It is the start of another hectic day at the office. There are clients to see, employees to hire, new locations to scout.

And major competition just across the street.

Plotting his next move, the unassuming head of a growing Gwinnett County empire speaks like a shaman spouting wisdom: "Patients are like vitamins, you need them,'' says Shah from his three-story Lawrenceville headquarters. "You take care of the people, the people take care of you.''

Shah is no corporate bigwig. To hear him tell it, he is a simple doctor with a business mind. But you won't find him in a lab coat.

He wears Italian leather shoes, an occasional silk tie and a sincere warm smile as he thanks his "clients" for their repeat business. And Gwinnett Clinic -- a chain he started with his physician wife, Meena -- has plenty of clients.

In fact, the chain has nine locations and counting.

This multimillion dollar vision of a savvy pair of Indian immigrants is thriving in an age of health care coups: In the early 1990s, fledging metro Atlanta hospitals began to consolidate to cut costs, eliminate competition and offer favorable deals to managed care plans. Last year, Emory Clinic shut down offices in Fayetteville, Social Circle and Duluth due to low patient demand and declining managed care payments.

Yet, Gwinnett Clinic is expanding. The Shahs plan to open four more medical complexes by 2003 and eventually look south to Atlanta.

"They call us an American success story,'' says Dr. Meena Shah, a primary care physician. "Physicians are not usually good businessmen, but my husband is an exception to the rule. He could go out and open a pizza shop and make it a success.''

One of the Shahs' newest clinics already is under construction at Old Norcross Road and Breckinridge Boulevard.

It is being built by a firm Shah manages, JJS Properties LLC. Another two clinics do brisk business in the face of hospitals in Duluth and Lawrenceville.

Says Dr. J.J. Shah: "If people have non-life threatening conditions like a sprained ankle or a broken finger, they don't need to go to a hospital. They can avoid expensive emergency room care by using us.''

Gwinnett Clinic offers convenient medical attention from pap smears to physicals. Fast.

It is open seven days a week, including holidays, and offers same-day appointments. Walk-ins are welcome.

"This is a group practice. It's not like when you call the hospital you have to wait to get an appointment,'' said Dr. Padmini Gunadeva, a Sri Lankan who works in the Snellville, Lilburn and Winder offices. "We do ultrasounds and bone density tests. We have the facilities.''

The Shahs attended medical school in Western India in a city about 250 miles north of Bombay, now called Mumbai.

He studied orthopedic surgery. She specialized in internal medicine. They left for the United States to seek their fortune in 1978. After residencies in family practice and orthopedic surgery, the pair chose Gwinnett County in July 1983 as the place to launch their business.

They picked the county because of its population boom and its diversity. Indians are the largest Asian group in Georgia, according to the U.S. census. The pair took a chance and opened two locations, one in Lilburn and one in Lawrenceville.

"We used to see maybe five to 10 patients a week in a three-bedroom house converted into an office,'' said J.J. Shah. "Now we see over 2,000 patients a week and have 39,800 square feet of office space.''

Between 1990 and 2000, Gwinnett's total population exploded to 588,448 from 352,910 residents. Starting in 1995, Gwinnett Clinic added offices in Snellville, Duluth, Loganville, Sugar Hill, Suwanee, Peachtree Corners and Winder.

Shah estimates that Gwinnett Clinic has about 100,000 patients including those on Medicare, Medicaid and other supplements.

He attributes their growth to their customer service philosophy: "We are a group of physicians who believe when a patient visits us it is our good fortune that we have gotten the chance to serve them, rather than giving them the impression that we are obliging them by taking care of them.''

Gwinnett Clinic has an international team of 18 full-time doctors and three consulting physicians who speak a total of nearly 20 languages including Hindi, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Arabic and African dialects.

By the end of the year, Shah will add six more full-time doctors, increase support staff to 125 employees and offer MRI and imaging services.

On a recent day, Rosie Kalfic, who brought her son in to schedule ankle surgery, chatted in her native language with a Bosnian on staff. "It feels good to see someone from home,'' she said. "We come here because it's just around the corner.''

Someday, the Shahs may pass their legacy on to their three children, Shveta, 21, Asha, 20, and Deep 16, who all want to be physicians. Shveta and Asha are both honor students on scholarship at Emory University.

The headquarters of Gwinnett Clinic is located at 475 Philip Blvd. in Lawrenceville. For more information, call 770-995-3300.