Naji Gehchan: Hello, leaders of the world. Welcome to “Spread Love in Organizations”, a podcast for purpose-driven healthcare leaders, striving to make life better around the world by leading their teams with genuine care, servant leadership, and love.
I am Naji, your host, joined today by Rehan Ahmed, an ophthalmologist passionate about improving eye care. Rehan has extensive experience in the patient eye care journey, from direct medical and surgical patient care, to retail optometric settings, medical OD/MD practice environments, drug development, and novel diagnostic and treatment modalities. His expertise is bridging strategic gaps between patient care, providers, payors, and regulatory agencies. Rehan is a practicing ophthalmologist, Medical Director in Global Clinical Development and Operations at Santen Pharmaceutical, founder of Texas Eye and Vision Associates, and Chief Medical Officer at Blink, a startup in remote ocular healthcare; he also advises multiple med-tech startups. Rehan received his MD degree from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He completed his internship at the University of Texas, residency in ophthalmology at Baylor College of Medicine, and MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management.
Rehan, It is a pleasure to see you again and have you with me today!
Rehan Ahmed: Naji, I’m happy to be here.
Naji Gehchan: Can you first share with us more about your personal story and what led you to this multi-facet successful career in clinical practice, medtech and entrepreneurship?
Rehan Ahmed: Yeah, I know. Well, first of all, thanks for having me. Um, it’s really a pleasure to be here and looking at the list of other speakers you’ve had, I definitely have, um, this, um, sense of imposter syndrome and like, I really don’t belong with your luminaries that you’ve had beforehand.
I’m, I’m, I’m glad I somehow snuck in. So, um, Yeah, you know, my, my story really begins in the basement of my home, uh, growing up in a small town in central Illinois. My dad came there. He’s a physician from Pakistan. He settled in essentially a small town. We’re surrounded by farmland and cows. In the middle of, uh, essentially nowhere, uh, but I remember growing up and being surrounded by books, like floor to ceiling books.
My dad was an avid reader, and I would follow through, and on sort of the hot, humid summer days, I would go downstairs, and I would just read voraciously. And, um, and that sort of led me to a lot of just being really interested in a lot of different things, um. And I got obsessed with computers. This is sort of the mid 90s, late 90s, really obsessed with computers, computer programming, so much so that, um, you know, I taught myself C and I got into artificial neural networks.
And I was, I was at the university as a high school student, um, working on an AI project. Again, it’s like the early 90s. I wish I’d stayed with AI. I would not be sitting here probably if I stayed with, with AI, I was on an AI project doing vision software, and that got me really interested in, in eye, vision in general, and eyes, and, um, and then, um, I got interested in the idea of philosophy, philosophy of mind, like how do, how does perception work, and what are thoughts, and what are, what is consciousness?
So then I went to university, I majored in philosophy, uh, particularly in philosophy of mind, thinking, you know, maybe I’ll do degrees in philosophy. Uh, and of course, um, I didn’t do that because I got interested in the biological basis of, of thoughts and consciousness. Okay, well, let me go to medical school.
So then I went to medical school, think I’d be a neurosurgeon or neurology or something. And then, um, I fell in love with the eye. Anatomy the first semester of medical school. Uh, and you’re a physician as well, so you remember the an anatomy and anatomy where I went to med school was, was, was a wonderful course.
Um, and there was a lot of reverence around the person who donated their body and the eye. And I was just, I was just so intrigued by this beautiful organ. And when I did rotations in ophthalmology, looking at. The eye in a magnified way is a different experience entirely. If you have, if you go to the eye doctor, you just sit there and you see a light shining in your eye.
But what the eye doctor is seeing is really a miracle. Uh, when I first looked at the, the iris, which is a colored portion of the eye, you could start to see the hills and valleys and the undulations of the iris structure, and it looks like you’re looking at mountains on the surface of the moon. Um, and then the, and then the pupil sort of constricting on light, it was just, it was just beautiful.
I thought, I thought this, this organ was such a powerful organ. In fact, um, you know, people would rather, I don’t know if this survey is true or not, but people say they would rather die than go blind. I mean, if you believe that. So the sense, the sense is such an important sense. And I just got, I fell in love with it.
Uh, and so I did my ophthalmology residency. Uh, and I, I loved, um, I loved that. Ophthalmology for me is a very practical field. Uh, because you can change someone’s life in a relatively short procedure. Um, like cataract surgery. I remember one of my first cataract surgeries was a patient, she had bilateral cataracts from diabetic cataracts.
And she hadn’t seen anything for three years. She was in her early fifties. And the first time she saw was after I did cataracts, which was the morning of. And I remember her taking off her patch, and she gave me a big hug right afterwards. And it was just a wonderful, you know, like a wonderful experience of being, having that human connection and ophthalmology.
And it was just, uh, it was a fantastic experience. Um, so that, that’s how I got into ophthalmology as just, um, it’s kind of a, uh, different things from philosophy of mind and color perception and neurology, but ultimately into ophthalmology. And that’s been, it’s been a wild ride. Well,
Naji Gehchan: thanks. Thanks for sharing.
And I love how you you’re framing it as it was just simple, but it’s definitely with your curiosity and how you saw things a little bit different that brought you to ophthalmology to take us a little bit further within the journey. So now. interested in entrepreneurship, you’ve built different startups, you mentor startups.
So how did you move into more of this also managerial and leadership and entrepreneurship side?
Rehan Ahmed: Um, so this is where it delves into a little bit the personal. I’m happy to chat about that because, um, after I finished My residency and fellowship, I got one of these ill fated phone calls that we always sort of, you always sort of hear about that changes your life in a direction.
And, um, it was a phone call from my wife at that time, who said they found, we were trying to have children, who were doing routine CAT scans, and they found a meth on her kidney. And, um, it turned out after everything that it turned out to be an aggressive form of kidney cancer. And, you know, we were 31 at the time.
She was, you know, my best friend. I met her when I was 17 years old. We got married at 20, um, married for 11 years. Uh, that moment, I mean, there was a very dark time, uh, and a difficult time after about 20 months, um, he went through chemotherapy and surgeries and more chemotherapy, and it was very difficult for her and, uh, and her caretakers.
And, uh, she passed away, unfortunately, 20 months afterwards. Uh, but to answer your question, that, That after that, that was like a lot of lessons there, right? I mean, tons of lessons. We could fill up multiple hours and probably hours of therapy or something, which I haven’t done, but it sounds, you know, you could do a lot of talking there, but it really made me view life in a, in a way that I wanted to do something more transformational.
You know, at least I wanted to try. Um, and I was happy having that sacred relationship with a patient, but I thought, you know, like, you know, we have, why don’t I try just to do something, uh, where, um, the beautiful thing about medicine is that you have this one on one relationship, but there’s another way that you can think about it is having, um, Scaling that relationship to thousands and potentially millions of patients.
So that’s what got me into medical devices and drug development and thinking more systems thinking and bigger picture, which sort of changed my trajectory to something else. I know it’s kind of a long answer to such a straightforward question, but that’s it.
Naji Gehchan: Oh, well, thank you. Yeah. And thank you, Ryan, for answering and sharing this part of your story.
Um, so you’re saying, and I love how you framed it, the amplification of your impact, right? From one patient to being able to help. Thousands with what you do. So I’m intrigued as you’ve done this, and I hear it from several physicians where we’re really used to have this adrenaline, this immediate impact on one patients that you heal that you save.
How do you see this when your impact is indirect now that you’re leading an organization or leading other teams for them to be able to impact lives?
Rehan Ahmed: Yeah, so I, so I sort of, um, I’m hedging my feelings a little bit because I still do patient care. And that’s, uh, that’s really important to me. I, I, I, I am still clinically active.
And so I think having that connection to patients is crucial. As you sort of start expanding your reach into doing something a little bit more wider impact, um, it’s definitely different, uh, and you can, I think the best people are the ones to have to still have some connection to real patient care who are still with physicians or nurses or healthcare providers in the trenches, uh, because that’s where the change actually occurs, not for some ivory tower.
Far away. You know, we may come, some of ’em may come up with some brilliant idea, but it’s the, the people on the ground who are touching and talking and listening to patients who are actually affect the change that the, the, the others are sort of wanting. So, um, so I think, you know, maybe I push back a little bit from the premise.
I think you need that patient care in order to, to really, um, drive change. And that’s why, you know, partly why I did the MBA. I think physicians have to have a, a louder voice at the table. Um, and really be involved because we’re best positioned, we are, we are well positioned to, to, to, to have those conversations with multiple stakeholders because we’re really at the center oftentimes between the patient and the sort of healthcare system in general.
Naji Gehchan: So that’s cool on this one, because one of your expertise and what you, where, where you say you bring a lot of value is really bridging those gaps, right? And putting all those different healthcare stakeholders. You know, in one place and helping them, um, you know, move better care. So can you share a little bit more your view about this?
So I understand that you want to, uh, remain focused and anchored on patient’s care at the end of the day, but how do you do it and how do you see, you know, bridging those gaps actually
Rehan Ahmed: happening? Yeah. So that’s a great question. Um, I think it starts. By asking yourself what problem, and you know this from, from our, from our classes, you know, that we’ve seen, what problem are you solving for?
That has to be the, the guidepost question for all your subsequent decision tree analysis. What, what, and that has to keep, you have to keep reminding yourself, what problem are you solving for? Because as I advise a lot of MedTech startups, they have brilliant ideas, and brilliant technology, and fantastic stuff, but Um, if there’s not really a pain point, um, there’s no, if there’s no problem, then no one’s really going to pick up on the beautiful solution that they came up with.
And I’m sure you see this all the time as well. So for me, it’s thinking about very specifically on that and reminding myself and the teams I advise on that fundamental question.
Naji Gehchan: Is there one fundamental problem you’re trying to solve these days? So I’ve
Rehan Ahmed: been thinking very deeply about, you know, I think about eye care in general, but, uh, and there are a lot of technologies about separating the exam, uh, from, well, tele, tele eye exams, like tele, tele ophthalmology or tele optometry.
It’s, it’s amazing that during the pandemic. One of the worst specialties, if not the worst specialty in all medicine was ophthalmology and optometry and, and being able to provide exams. Why? Because we need. Uh, that technology at the patient level, like in front of the patient, we can’t, we don’t have yet the ability to do an eye exam over a computer.
And this stuff is coming, but it’s not great. And, uh, there’s still a lot of work to be done. So I think thinking about that problem, that’s the fundamental problem of doing a real tele optometric or tele ophthalmic exam is actually the problem. I’ve been, I’ve been working and spending a lot of time thinking about it the past couple of years.
Naji Gehchan: that. And as you said, you know, now that you’re bringing back COVID, I think it’s definitely one of those organs, as you explained, that we really value, but definitely it was one of the last priorities we thought of. When we were during COVID time, like who did his ophthalmology exam during COVID, which is, which is crazy, as you’re
Rehan Ahmed: saying, right, exactly.
And the other thing that’s really amazing about the eyes is kind of a tangent, but I think about the eyes, a sentinel of disease, and we, you know, a lot of med techs are looking at. You know, various surrogate markers of disease, like what can they look at to predict other features that are, you know, one wouldn’t think of and, um, but looking at the eye or the retina in particular, because that’s one area of neural tissue, brain tissue that we could actually see, you know, without slicing open someone’s head and looking in their brain, we actually look at real nervous tissue through a retina exam.
What other things can we learn about? Is there a connection between Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and someone’s retina? Can we diagnose? Alzheimer’s a decade before it actually clinically manifests by looking at their retina. What about other neurological diseases? What about cancer? Uh, and so a lot of groups are looking at this, uh, and so it’s something I’m super excited about, thinking about the eye as a, as a way to evaluate for other cardiovascular neurological diseases.
Naji Gehchan: Also, I want to go to more your leadership skills and how you’ve built those through the different experiences you’ve had. You shared one crucifix, obviously, and how you grew from that moment, but also you’ve led in different places. Different type of organizations, um, and also managing patient care constantly up to now, when you think about this, I’d love to hear more about your leadership signature, as we would call it as Sloanies, I’m intrigued about this, how do you define yourself today as a leader, and what has, what is the biggest learning through the journey, and as you mentor all also those different startups and founders.
Rehan Ahmed: Uh, so I like to, in thinking about my, my sort of leadership signature, um, I anchored in my own curiosity of, as, as a, as a little boy in the basement of, uh, of, of my home reading books on from philosophy to biology, to learning about other people. I think that’s sort of a fundamental thing to really care about someone, to really know someone and love someone is that you actually have to be curious about them.
You have to actually ask questions. about them. So I manage a team of doctors and whenever any issue, any issue comes up when I just talk to my, I was. I would really actually try not to fake any curiosity about them. I really genuinely want to know about them, about them, their family, their lives, what their interests are.
Um, I think that is a foundational and really being a good leader. Curiosity about your world, curiosity about your fellow man. Um, curiosity about the problem you’re trying to solve, about the system. I think that is a bedrock for a lot of the kindness and love and happiness and joy that you’re trying to bring to the world.
So for me, that is the foundational way of, I look at my own leadership signature. It’s about an, uh, just sort of like a beauty of the world, you know, of this time together. You know, I’m informed a lot, you can probably tell by, by grief and, and suffering and that, but it really comes down to like, you know, we have, uh, this life is a beautiful life.
We have a beautiful. Like, the time that we have is beautiful, and to be having great gratitude toward that, um, to me, stems a lot just from curiosity, and just like, this mystery of this beautiful world. And these beautiful people that you work with and learning about them. So if you, if you take, when I take that mindset, I find that everything else sort of falls into place really well.
So for me, um, my foundational leadership principle on the ways to organize my life, interacting with people is from one of curiosity. Well, thank you for sharing
Naji Gehchan: that. And it’s got off a great segue for my next section where I’ll give you a word and get your reaction. So I probably know your first. Words reaction.
The first word is leadership.
Rehan Ahmed: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it stems again from curiosity. I think that that is the bedrock. I sort of answered that question in advance, but it’s really a genuine curiosity. It’s not something you can’t really fake it. You really have to want to learn about other people and their time and the world.
And when they feel that it’s magic.
So the second one is intrapreneurship, um, problem solving. Problem solving. Um, in medicine, we see this a lot. Um, there’s, there’s a tech that’s really great, but it’s not solving a problem. And, and, um, or it’s not looking at all the other stakeholders that are involved, you know, ensure, especially in the U. S.
Um, we have, you know, accountable care organizations, we have insurance, regular fee for service, we have insurance, and so, um, it’s, it’s a complicated landscape, and so thinking about, um, the problem and who’s, who’s willing to pay for the solution, um, those are, those are the things to, to, to keep in mind. The third one is MIT.
Um, for me personally, it’s. A second chance in a way, because I, um, the only reason I only applied to one school for business school and for the executive MBA was MIT, I actually got in as an undergrad and I was about to go, but for a variety of reasons, family, et cetera, I didn’t, I didn’t go. I went to a school, um, locally in Chicago.
So I actually, I didn’t go. And so for me. It’s a second chance to, in a way, make things right, because I always wanted to go, and I was so excited when, when I got in, and when I went on campus, I thought, well, you know, you don’t get a second chance at life, you can’t redo things, but sometimes, you know, you can do things a little bit delayed.
You know, and that’s okay. And
Naji Gehchan: the last one is spread love in organizations.
Rehan Ahmed: Really understanding people, getting to know them and being curious about, about their lives and what makes them tick. That will, that will move organizations and your relationships in ways that you can’t imagine.
Naji Gehchan: usually I would ask for a final word of wisdom, but with all our discussions and really deep discussions we’ve had, um, you’ve been still doing a lot. You said you’re still a clinician, you’re a mentor, but you have your company. You also manage physicians. What are the questions I frequently have for those of us who do like so many different things is how do you do that?
So I’m going to ask you this question. Tell me, how do you
Rehan Ahmed: do that? Um, it’s not just me, basically. Uh, it’s a team and it starts with my, my, my wife of, um, Uh, since 2016, uh, she’s been wonderful. We have two kids together. And so, uh, it’s been, uh, she is the rock for me. Uh, and so that, it takes a team, uh, and it starts, it starts with that relationship because if that’s, you know, if that whole relationship’s not good and everything else falls by the wayside.
So, uh, for me, it’s the, it’s the, it’s the people you surround yourself with. Namely for me, it’s my spouse.
Naji Gehchan: Oh, great. That’s, that’s a great, um, that’s a great summary, I would say of how you do it. I I can, I can certainly relate to it heavily. ,
Rehan Ahmed: I’m sure. Yeah. Yeah. Sorry. No, yeah, I’m, I’m sure you can relate because there’s no way that people can do, there’s always an army of, of people below, um, who are actually doing all the work.
Naji Gehchan: Any final word of wisdom, Rayan, for healthcare leaders around the world?
Rehan Ahmed: You know, the problem is grand. You know, and I’m just working on one little, uh, organ, on one little, you know, system, and particularly the U. S. Like, so… The problem is grand in front of us. And so I think this is the most, um, healthcare is the most pressing problem. I think facing, um, um, our, our world and sort of moving forward.
There’s many, many other problems, but for me, I think it’s the biggest problem because if we don’t have our health, then what do we really have? Um, and it involves multiple areas, including climate and, and, and the stump and environment, et cetera. But. Um, yeah, I think for us it’s time to, to get to work, to get our voices heard, to get at the, to, to be at, um, to be at the table and speaking for our patients and our communities.
Naji Gehchan: Well, thank you so much for being with me today!
Rehan Ahmed: Oh, it’s a pleasure. This has been wonderful. Thank you so much for the opportunity and the time.
Naji Gehchan: Thank you all for listening to SpreadLove in Organizations podcast. Drop us a review on your preferred podcast platform
Follow us on LinkedIn and connect with us on spreadloveio.com. We’re eager to hear your thoughts and feedback. Most importantly, spread love in your organizations and spread the word around you to inspire others and amplify this movement, our world so desperately needs