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Episode 29 of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast

“Especially as physicians we get caught up in that analysis paralysis. We’re waiting for things to be just perfect and they usually never are. And so, you just have to kinda get started.” -Dr. Saira Ahmed

In today’s episode, Jen talks with Dr. Saira Ahmed to discuss her fascinating and diverse life in medicine and outside of medicine. Aside from working full time in Utilization Review, she also manages a busy practice, has a real estate business, has a school that trains people to become phlebotomists, and a thriving e-commerce business selling scrubs and other medical accessories. As if that weren’t enough, she and her husband also run a non-profit and do multiple community service projects throughout the year. Wow. Tune in to hear how she got started and how she keeps her life balanced.

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Podcast produced by: Amanda Taran

Please enjoy the full transcript below

Dr. Saira: Especially as physicians, we get caught up in that analysis paralysis. We’re waiting for things to be just absolutely perfect and they usually never are. So, I think you just have to get started.

Jen: This is Dr. Jen Barna. Thank you for joining us today on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Today, I’m talking with a very interesting guest, Dr. Saira Ahmed, who’s a wonderful example of a physician who’s optimized her medical practice to fit her personal goals and lifestyle, and who runs multiple businesses in a non-profit organization on the side. If you’re interested in developing a business, looking to pay off debt, or build financial independence while enjoying a career as a physician, this two-part episode is for you. On today’s interview, we’ll discuss the businesses Dr. Ahmed runs and how she balances at all. On Friday’s episode with Saira. I’ll talk with her about investing in real estate getting into the details. Let’s dive right in to today’s episode. 

 

Welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. I’m Dr. Jen Barna, and I’m here today with guest, Dr. Saira Ahmed. She is a Board-Certified Internist and sleep medicine specialist who works full time in utilization review and helps her husband run a busy practice in addition to running a number of businesses or side gigs as we like to call them. 

 

Dr. Saira: Great. 

 

Jen: Welcome. Thank you so much for joining me today.

 

Dr. Saira: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

 

Jen: I Want to hear about everything. So, my first question was just when did you decide to become a doctor and what was the story behind that?

 

Dr. Saira: Yeah, I basically knew from the beginning, I was going to be a doctor. My grandfather was a doctor, and none of his kids became doctors. My father was a pharmacist. He was supposed to be a doctor, and he actually dropped out of med school. So, when I was born, I think my grandfather was like, “You’re going to fulfill my dreams and you’re going to be the doctor.” I grew up with that in my mind, and I couldn’t really imagine doing anything else anyway. So, it was something I wanted also, so that, I guess, for instance, growing up, I just knew I was going to be a doctor.

 

Jen: That is really interesting. It seems like some people have known their whole lives, if that’s what they want to do and so you’re one of those [crosstalk] 

 

Dr. Saira: I don’t know what else I would have done. Yeah, I think that was the path for me.

 

Jen: Great. So, when was the first time that you got interested or that you remember being interested in business?

 

Dr. Saira: So probably, I was thinking about this very late. I did not ever think that I was going to be an entrepreneur or go into business at all. Pretty much my whole professional career has been focused on becoming a physician, and getting into residency, getting through residency in fellowship. I think, I started thinking about entrepreneurship when I was at attending in my first year of being an attending. My first job after fellowship, I worked as a hospitalist. It was really awesome, because there’s a huge learning curve when you go from being a fellow to becoming an attending. But after a year of doing that, I felt like the learning curve hadn’t really plateaued and I felt I had pretty much learned everything there was to learn in that position, and I was trying to think, “You know, okay, I’ve got one year in as an attending, what is my future plan now and what do I want to do?” 

 

So, I think the whole entrepreneurship thing started because I knew I wanted to do something on my own whether that was having a practice, or I actually had a plan to open a wellness, not really a spa, but a wellness place like a retreat. I actually, still have those notes. It’s like from 10 years ago. I had a binder that I used to like jot notes down, and ideas, and things that I would want at my retreat. But luckily what happened is, the guy I was seeing at the time proposed and got married, and then that was history. Then, basically, luckily, he turned out wanting a lot of the same things I wanted too. So, we started our entrepreneurial journey together.

 

Jen: And is that something that you knew? Is that something you talked about before you got married or is that something that you discovered after you got married? 

 

Dr. Saira: It was something we discovered after honestly, because he had his practice already. He was a physician practicing, and he was like, “You can do whatever you want, you can help me in my practice, you want to work in my practice, you want to have a job.” I was like, “Well, I have all these ideas of things I want to do.” He’s like, “That sounds really cool. We’ll figure it out.” So, I think we had a very easy and very understanding relationship from the beginning.

 

Jen: So, ultimately, it sounds like you decided to join his practice. Is that right?

 

Dr. Saira: I did. In the beginning, I did. I joined his practice, and I worked his practice for probably around five years. Then eventually I decided, “You know what, I’d rather just take more of a management role.” I still see patients as practice one day a week just to keep up my clinical skills because it’s something you don’t want to lose. But clinically, I’m not the biggest provider there anymore. I’m more of management now, and I got my own job doing utilization, which I felt was more related to sleep medicine was just my specialty. So, I thought that was a win-win for me. It also gave me the opportunity to focus on other things like our other projects that we have going on.

 

Jen: Did you say you’re working full time in utilization review? 

 

Dr. Saira: Yes. 

 

Jen: So, in addition to the utilization review full time work, you have a real estate business, is that correct? 

 

Dr. Saira: Yeah.

 

Jen: And you have a business training people to become phlebotomist.

 

Dr. Saira: Yes, we have a little school that we started a few years ago.

 

Jen: Okay, and then you have an E-commerce clothing store that sells scrubs, right? 

 

Dr. Saira: Yep. 

 

Jen: Okay, so, this really interesting because you’ve got such diversity in your business portfolio as well. So, what was the first thing that you did? Then you also have a non-profit organization, too, right? 

 

Dr. Saira: Yeah. 

 

[laughter] 

 

Jen: So, tell me, which of these did you start first?

 

Dr. Saira: The non-profit came first. So, what happened after I got married, I moved to South Jersey, where my husband was already settled. One year into our marriage, we’re both moderate Muslims. We do practice and we like to go to mosque on Fridays, and we do practice Ramadan. So, we’ve realized that the mosque with our busy schedule, our schedule is only getting busier, busier, and the closest mosque was about 25, 30 minutes away and we’re just like, “There’s got to be an easier way for us to continue to practice our religion and still do everything else that we do.” So, we decided to open a non-profit and open an Islamic center in our town. 

 

We spoke with the mayor, and we said, “Listen, we have a small community here. We’ve got professionals, and we’ve got business owners, and it would just be so convenient if we can have a place to pray here.” At the same time, we felt with everything going on in the news and stuff, and how sometimes were portrayed. I don’t want to get political, but we thought we need to show positive show that positive outlook on Islam and we are doctors, we’re taxpayers, we’re good citizens, and we wanted to do some education. At the same time, we also wanted to do community service. So, we do on multiple projects throughout the year. During Christmas, we get out hundred hot meals to community members, and they don’t have to be a part of our mosque. You don’t have to be Muslim or anything, we just want to get back treat the local community. So, we thought the best way to do it was starting our non-profit, we spoke to the mayor at the time, and said, “This is what we want to do,” and she was supportive, so we did.

 

Jen: That’s an amazing outreach that’s really to be commended for you guys to have accomplished that. I’m sure, it’s made a big difference in your community.

 

Dr. Saira: It has. Honestly, people move to our town now because they have that access, especially families of little kids who they want their kids to learn their religion, and we actually expanded from one building to four buildings now, and over the years, and our community has grown, and we continue to do community service. I mentioned an email to you, our next project that we want to do is we want to open a free clinic that’s open for everybody in our town. That’s going to be the next thing, I think, towards the end of this year in 2022, I’m going to be working on

 

Jen: Wow, okay, that sounds like a whole podcast unto itself. [laughs] So, I definitely am going to have to invite you back to tell us about that as in that way, so it would be fantastic. So, tell me you know with everything you have going on, how do you strike the right balance?

 

Dr. Saira: Yeah, sometimes, there is no balance. Sometimes, it’s really hard because we work together, me and my husband all day. Even if I’m doing my job, we’re on the phone constantly every couple of hours and updating each other, and I think sometimes you can physically have to be like, “Okay, we got to put the phones away and it’s the weekend, and it’s Sunday or whatever it is, and turn it off.” So, sometimes, there is no balance and you have to really be conscious of turning things off in focusing on self-care and doing things for yourself. So, I think, it’s an effort to keep things balanced.

 

Jen: What are some of the things that you enjoy doing outside of all of the work?

 

Dr. Saira: We’re both shopaholics. [laughs] That’s so bad like, he’s a huge online shopper. There’s boxes come into the house every day, and I think have grown a taste for designer things, and so, we’re both big shoppers and travelers. We love traveling. Before COVID, we would take multiple trips throughout the year. So, yeah, I think those are the two things we love.

 

Jen: Wonderful. Yeah, those sound-like great ways to spend your time and you’re giving back to your community. I suppose with your chopping as well. 

 

Dr. Saira: Okay. 

 

Jen: So, with everything you have going on, what does a typical day look like for you? How do you integrate everything?

 

Dr. Saira: So, I work my full-time job from 1 PM to 11 PM actually. It is a role positions I actually work from home. So, my day starts at nine. Basically, I’m up by like 6 AM, I do meditation, and take a walk or do things, and then by nine, I’m working. I have a schedule. Basically, I tried to stick to it as much as possible on what days I’m going to be working on what. So, one day, I’ll be working on practice-related things. One day, I’ll be working on our scrub line. One day, I’m working on our school. And then, I start my job at 1 and I’ll go till 11 PM.

 

Jen: Wow, that is certainly an extensive day. So, do you take a couple of days off at all?

 

Dr. Saira: I get Fridays off from my job. So, Fridays are quite a relaxed day. My mom actually lives with us, because my father passed away five years ago, and I’m an only child. So, she moved in with us. So, Friday is like mom day. I take care of all her stuff, doctor’s appointments, whatever she needs to do it Fridays. I have lunch with her on Fridays. So, I’ve tried to dedicate a few hours of Friday to her. [crosstalk] 

 

Jen: It’s wonderful.

 

Dr. Saira: Thank you. Then Friday is also, we go to mosque. So, Friday, if I try to do things with her, I do a little bit of work. I don’t think I’d be completely shut work out. I do have a couple of meetings in there on Fridays, but I tried to give her a few hours, and do other things.

 

Jen: And knowing everything you know now about all of the various types of businesses in addition to your medical practice, knowing what you know now, if you were advising someone who’s just getting started, what would you advise?

 

Dr. Saira: I think, number one, just get started. I think everybody says that, I think, especially as physicians, we get caught up in that analysis paralysis. We’re we waiting for things to be just absolutely perfect, and they usually never are. So, I think, you just have to get started. I think you have to expect that there’s going to be losses. Nothing is perfect. The flame in entrepreneurship, there’s highs and then there’s lows and you’re going to lose sometimes. You’re going to lose money sometimes. It’s definitely expected. So, just keep those expectations real. 

 

I think that was hard for me at the beginning, because I felt like everything has to be a straight line and A plus B has to go to C, and it doesn’t necessarily, sometimes, it goes to C first. [laughs] I think now, I’ve become more kind of resilient, and when the loss has happened, I’m more easily able to say, “Okay, that’s fine. Let’s just pivot and do this this way instead.” That’s what I would advise.

 

Jen: Can you tell me an example of a time when things did not go as you thought they would? 

 

Dr. Saira: I had so many. [crosstalk]  

 

Jen: [laughs] 

 

Dr. Saira: You want to list? 

 

Jen: Yeah, anyone.

 

Dr. Saira: [laughs] Yeah, so, there was a time actually that we thought we’d get into the business of owning a group home. I don’t know if you know what a group home is, but basically, usually a group home is where you have people living there who have underlying psychiatric issues, and they are supported by the state, so they get social security checks. What that involves is you have to have a 24/7 caregiver who lives in the home with them, and you have to provide all the food, obviously, the room and board. 

 

So, what happens is that, they sign their social security over to you, and you have to give them a little bit back for their personal space. So, if they want to buy clothes or things like that, but the rest of the check belongs to you. But with that check, you have to provide food, and they’re 24/7 care, you have to get their medications, all that kind of stuff. So, we thought, “Oh, that’s going to be a good idea. Let’s do this business.” We’re going to get into the group home business, and we actually bought the property. We bought a house, and we bought the business from somebody, and it was the worst– 

 

It was just not for us. When we got into it, it involved so much more than what we thought, the profit margin was not there, and it was just a huge risk and liability, and just a huge, huge, huge mistake. We didn’t do our research 100%. We were told that our home was approved for 10 residents, and after we bought it, and we went to the state, and we looked it up, and we were only approved for six residents, and it was just a nightmare. So, we had to pivot. We had to pivot, we did that for probably like two years, I think tried to make it work, and at the end, we said, “You know what, we’ve lost tons of money here and we’re losing money every month, and we need to shut it down.” So, what do we do? We pivoted, we kept the property, we closed the business down, and we turn the property into a rental, and now, it’s cash flowing.

 

Jen: Oh, Wonderful. Oh, that’s a great, happy ending to the story. Well, I’m going to have you come on for a separate episode here to talk about your real estate specifically, because I think there will be a lot of interest in your advice and experience there since you’ve been owning real estate. Now. I think you said for about five years, is that right? 

 

Dr. Saira: Yes. Mm-hmm. 

 

Jen: Great. So, we’ll come back and we’ll talk further about that. So, Saira, can you please tell us how people can find you?

 

Dr. Saira: Yeah, sure. I think the fast way to get me is probably through Facebook. I check Facebook a lot and through messenger. So, just go ahead and send me a friend request to Saira Ahmed. It is S-A-I-R-A-A-H-M-E-D and that will be the best way. Our website for our E-commerce store is www.aplusmedicalscrubs.com. So, you can definitely send me a message through there, too. I do get those emails. I think that would be the best way to get me.

 

Jen: Wonderful, and thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate all of your insights into various ways of just knocking it out of the park. You’re so successful at all these different things and it’s great to hear that. 

 

Dr. Saira: Oh, [crosstalk] Thanks.

Amanda: Hello, and thank you for listening. This is Amanda Taran. I’m the producer of the DocWorking podcast. If you enjoyed our podcast, please like and subscribe. We would also love it, if you check out our website which is docworking.com. And you can also find us on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and on Instagram. On Instagram, we are @docworking1, and that is with the number one. When you check us out on social, please let us know what you would like to hear on the podcast. Your feedback really means a lot to us. And if you’re a physician with a story you’d like to tell, please reach out to me at [email protected] to apply to be on the podcast. Thank you again and we look forward to talking with you on the next episode of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.

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