When AJ Patel joined Roseville-based TeleMed2U as president and CEO in October 2019, he was still living in Texas and a global lockdown was months away.
It may seem like TeleMed2U, a medical group that provides telehealth appointments among other services, would have been well poised to capitalize off the Covid-19 pandemic, but the company faced significant headwinds. The concept of “telehealth” had yet to fully enter the collective lexicon, Patel says, and many of the companies they worked with had stopped all or most virtual services.
"We serve a lot of client sites like the correctional system across California,” Patel said. "We also serve an array of hospitals (and) the specialty care that we deliver was (shut) down as hospitals stopped doing elective procedures."
Pre-pandemic, Patel said, he’d already been thinking about ways to play to his company’s strengths. Now, he had to accelerate those plans.
"When I arrived (in October), I’d already been assessing where the company was doing well and where the opportunities were,” he said. “In my mind this was a journey that would have probably taken us five or 10 years before virtual care became mainstream.”
By July 2020, Patel had moved his family to California. He’d also figured out how to help the company evolve. Certain medical specialties, such as behavioral health, he’d realized, were better suited for virtual care delivery. Still, some obstacles persisted.
“We started strategically road-mapping how we would accelerate our growth,” he said. “What we learned was that the biggest barrier was not the patient’s mindset — it was more the specialist’s and the clinician’s mindset."
Whatever the problem, Patel built on more than two decades in the industry, including nearly 14 years working for Walgreens, where he supervised the operations of 37 drugstores throughout central Texas.
Born in South Africa and raised in New Zealand, Patel and his family relocated to Texas, where they had relatives, when he was a teenager. By the time Patel was ready for college he knew he wanted to work in health care, but instead of becoming a doctor like his parents, he opted for pharmacy studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He initially dreamed of owning his own drugstore but, eventually, his perspective shifted.
"The model for the independent druggist was changing pretty rapidly,” he said. "I realized I could achieve that vision and dream but do it in a corporate setting."
Today, when it comes to leading a company through difficult growth, Patel says he tries to keep his team centered.
“A leader in this environment has to constantly remind people of the company’s mission and focus,” he said.
Javeed Siddiqui, TeleMed2U’s chief medical officer, says Patel’s nimbleness led the company through significant tests during the pandemic.
“AJ guided this organization to meet the needs and the demands of the shifting landscape,” he said.
With 110 full-time employees, TeleMed2U is much smaller in scale than a corporate giant such as Walgreens. This makes for what Patel sees as a “flat” organization.
"When you’re working in a smaller environment, your people need more reinforcement,” he said. "But over the last three years, we’ve worked shoulder-to-shoulder with each other."