Ahmad Yousaf and Michael Pafford couldn’t be more different. Yousaf is from New Jersey and 35. Pafford is 49 and Arkansan. Still, these two doctors made an instant connection that has now led to a successful business allowing them to care for nearly all patients hospitalized in Saline County.
In 2016, Yousaf was a Rutgers (NJ) University resident looking for a job. He found one as a hospitalist at Saline Memorial hospital in Benton working for Pafford, a veteran of the hospital. They quickly found a kinship that benefited them both.
When describing the early years, Yousaf says, “Michael was kind of like a big brother for me early when I was still growing my skills as a physician, because he was already several years into his career but interested in the same practice style that I was. So, I could think out loud to him and his feedback was always valuable. He also provided a safety net for me in terms of medical procedures because he was always around as a backup if I needed advice. That freed me to advance my skills very quickly.”
However, Pafford is quick to point out that the relationship was mutual and says, “Yousaf actually gives me too much credit when he tells the story. He was skilled from the very beginning and would have excelled in whatever environment he was in. He brought an energy that allowed him to push through hurdles. Yousaf was very instrumental in this process, because I had recruited other physicians into our group that didn’t fit the same way. Plus, he was much more business-minded than I was. He was the missing ingredient. I don’t think Rock Medical Group would have happened if he hadn’t come here.”
Yousaf’s business interest is obvious. He has managed to seek his MBA from one of this country’s most prestigious business schools while working full-time as a physician and helping his wife raise three kids under the age of 7, attending his business classes in Philadelphia on his time off. Yousaf is on track to complete his MBA from Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in the summer of 2022.
By 2019, Saline Memorial was going through an ownership change, and the work environment was changing, so the two decided to partner and created a company focused on re-centering healthcare on the relationship between patient and physician. Instead of continued erosion of medical care that disconnects doctors and patients from the decisions that affect patients’ health, they wanted to see physicians and patients empowered to bring those decisions back to the bedside.
As Yousaf put it, “The house of healthcare should be hosted by the physician.” So, Rock Medical Group was born in October of 2019. The group provides hospitalist services for three hospitals including Saline Memorial and the new Arkansas Heart Hospital, Encore Medical Center. The group’s initial client was Cabot Emergency Hospital.
Hospitalists are doctors who begin taking care of patients as soon as they are admitted to the hospital from the ER. Sometimes the hospitalists work with specialists to “coordinate all patient care for the hospital,” Pafford said.
“We take care of acutely ill people anywhere from the surgical floor to ICU and also help by consulting from an internal medicine perspective,” Yousaf said.
The company has expanded quickly since its on-paper-only start in 2019, when the two doctors continued to work their full-time jobs. Now, with Yousaf serving as chief executive officer and Pafford as chief medical officer, Dr. Scott Dicus and Dr. Zachary Morrill are senior partners.
When referring to the core group of partners, they both agree, “we have an ideal partnership because we all enjoy being around each other, we have the same goals and focus, and we all help each other bear the burden.” In fact, their logo (a man rolling a boulder uphill) is a visual representation of the fact that we all have to help each other bear the burden.
In need of business acumen, the partners recruited Raza Iqbal from out of state to serve as chief operating officer. Joanie White assists Raza Iqbal in the daily business operations. Physicians Deborah Quade, Omar Qazi, Aryeh Sokolov and Michael Davis round out the physician staff. Still, their practice would be incomplete without the host of nurse practitioners and physician assistants who are its backbone. Jennifer Neighbors, Regina Bennett, Tyler Childs, Megan Wheat, Austin Howe, Kadi Harris, and Jennifer Huber complete the clinical staff.
“Our staff takes pride in taking good care of our patients, and we look at it as, instead of working for the hospitals, we are partners with them, working together to serve the patients the best we can,” Pafford said.
As the company has grown, it has had to deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s a challenge that even a 20-year veteran physician such as Pafford hasn’t seen in his career.
“This is the first illness that I remember treating people who come into the hospital thinking they already have an understanding of an illness, even though they have not experienced that illness personally. And it has been a barrier in treating it,” he said. “We have tried to educate people and support them, and have learned more as we go.”
Yousaf said the pandemic has put a focus on how important trust is between a doctor and patient as decisions are made regarding treatments. He adds that it is even more important than before for doctors to “be compassionate on how to navigate difficult situations.”
“We have seen more people die in age groups that don’t typically deal with death, “Yousaf said. “We have had to hold hands of dying patients that we wouldn’t have had to ordinarily, and that is challenging.”
Almost two years later, COVID-19 and the new Omicron-Variant are still a crisis facing people in Saline County and across the country. Pafford offers simple advice to keep you and your family safe.
“Get vaccinated,” Pafford said. “Everyone in our group has seen that people who are vaccinated are certainly more likely to survive than those who are not. If you are vaccinated you may still get infected, but we see on a daily basis that those who are vaccinated have an easier time fighting it.”
Yousaf added that maintaining a lifestyle that will prevent risk factors for COVID-19 such as diabetes and morbid obesity will decrease your risk of being severely affected by the illness.
As for general health lifestyle tips to stay out of the hospital, Yousaf points to “recognizing the things we have been told since we are children: eat a balanced diet, avoid refined sugars and fast food, get away from a sedentary lifestyle and find a coping mechanism that can help you manage stress,” Yousaf said.