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American Family Care’s Bruce Irwin: ‘I just wanted to help people’

These are good times for Bruce Irwin.

The founder and CEO of American Family Care, Irwin has watched his company grow more than 400 percent over the last three years. The company recently secured $1 billion in private equity funding for the development of 300 medical centers across the country. And AFC recently was once again on the Inc. 5000 list, staking its place among America’s fastest growing private companies.

He’s come a long way from Center Point, when an early family tragedy aimed him squarely at a career in health care.

“I never wanted to be anything other than a doctor,” he said.

In October 1949, Irwin’s father was injured in a railroad accident near Atmore which cut off both of his legs. Though he lived for 17 more years, the elder Irwin entered a painful period of adjustment, as his leg wounds would become infected, requiring further amputation.

Irwin does not actually remember the moment his mother recounted of how he coped with his father’s allergic reaction to penicillin. He was perhaps four or five years old and the adults in the room felt he needed calming down. He said he was OK – he wanted to be a doctor.

Irwin went on to the University of Alabama School of Medicine, but he had no formal business training when he decided to start his own company. Nevertheless, he had already exhibited entrepreneurial zeal from an early age. He worked in his father’s shoe shop as a boy. He ran a lawn mower service and later, a janitorial service in his teens. While a resident, he started an emergency room staffing company.

“I learned at a very early age, you can only do so much with your own two hands,” he said. “What you need to do is get other people’s hands involved.

It was around 1980 at Brookwood Medical Center, Irwin said, that he got the idea that became American Family Care. As a doctor, he could see that the emergency room was overloaded with patients who didn’t require serious care.

As Irwin’s biography says, he sketched a plan for a network of urgent care clinics on a notepad. The company now has more than 160 clinics and 500 in-network physicians caring for about two million patients a year.

And yet, Irwin said, emergency rooms are still filled with people who don’t require immediate care.

“I’ve got 19 clinics in the Birmingham area, and Birmingham ERs are still overloaded,” he said. “It’s not a question of people not having insurance. That’s what everybody used to think. I think some of it is people not knowing how many things we can treat. But it’s something that’s still going on.”

Irwin said he believes the future of healthcare is “quite good.” The majority of people want some kind of overall solution from Congress regarding the fate of the Affordable Care Act, he said, and then people will find a way to adjust to it. But he says the future will probably look much like it does now – a mix of government health care, private insurance and people who elect not to have insurance.

American Family Care, he said, provides healthcare access and convenience.

“Before urgent care, you had two choices,” he said. “You could go see a doctor whenever you could, or go to the ER. We offer a third option to get into the system. If we can’t treat you, we can get your further into the system quickly.”

But health care isn’t a business like others, though Irwin believes it can be branded. Though health care is largely local, even a franchise must have community involvement.

“We’re passionate about having a quality, consistent product,” he said. “That’s been missing in medicine. The consistency of how patients are treated. Quite frankly, it’s not there. Our system, as a whole, is not set up for it. But we as a company want to have the best health care available, and it be consistent.”

With the kind of rapid, national growth American Family Care has seen, Irwin said he wants to make sure the company continues to adhere to core values of honesty, fairness and creating a superior experience.

“Everyone who sees us has a problem,” Irwin said. “It’s our job to solve that problem. If all my franchisees understand why we do things, the rest is easy.”

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