As a sixth-form pupil on work experience at The Royal Hospital in Muscat, Ahmed Shahrabani would stand at the side of the wards and watch in awe at the way his father interacted with the patients under his care.
The then 17-year-old noticed how Dr Rashid Shahrabani not only knew each person’s first name, but also their hobbies as well as the names of any children and the subjects they were studying at school.
In return, many of those treated by the eminent cardiologist subsequently called in at the family home in the Madinat Qaboos area of the port capital to thank him over a coffee.
Such was the respect of the Omani community that even what were meant to be quick trips to the local supermarket inevitably became drawn-out affairs, with current and former patients stopping him at every aisle to say hello.
It’s little wonder then that the young Ahmed wanted to emulate his father’s compassionate approach to health care by becoming a doctor himself.
“I am who I am today because of how I saw Dad practise medicine, and how he treated people and how people treated him,” Dr Al Shahrabani, now 30, tells The National.
“Anybody can learn science, but it's a much more difficult skill to become a good communicator with people, especially in times of adversity.”
His father died just over a year ago but the legacy enshrined in the belief that medicine is 90 per cent communication and 10 per cent science lives on in Dr Shahrabani Jnr who has always lingered on ward rounds to truly understand how patients are feeling.
“It's amazing the cues you can pick up as a doctor just by listening rather than diving into the deep end of the science and the biomarkers of blood tests and CT scans,” he says.
If it was those early lessons from his father that inspired him to become a doctor, it was the influence of his mother, Fatin Ajina, who paved the way for his switch to healthcare technology.
Fatin’s example as a pharmacist shaping important policy decisions within the Ministry of Health in Oman helped Dr Shahrabani to recognise and solve one of the biggest challenges facing the National Health Service – staff shortages.
Every Friday, the rota manager would ask the junior doctors whether they could pick up a weekend shift. When, already stretched by the demands of their daily jobs, they would often say no, a consultant was tasked to persuade them.
“If we said no again, there was a barrage of phone calls, emails, texts and bleeps to all the doctors in the hospital to see if they could pick up the shift,” recalls Dr Shahrabani.
“Failing that, it would go to a recruitment agency where, again, there would be more phone calls, emails and texts. It was a convoluted process that took a lot of time and money.”
He and fellow junior doctor Nicholas Andreou did some research and discovered that it was costing the NHS a staggering £4 billion ($5.41bn) a year.
A few coding courses later and the pair were on the fundraising track to set up their company Locum’s Nest, a name carefully chosen to symbolise a community of doctors that worked flexibly rather than the segmented system that had been in place before.
They invested £30,000 of their own money to start the business in 2016, with a further £100,000 secured from friends and family, and have since raised £4.5 million from two venture capital rounds led by Albion Capital in London and IDO Investments, an innovation company in Oman.
Locum’s Nest, which operates on a subscription model, now has 30 staff and helps about 50,000 doctors book shifts in 45 of the 180 health trusts across the UK.
“The aim is to get to 90 trusts by the end of this year,” says Dr Shahrabani.
“We just did an independent study and we’ve saved the NHS nearly three quarters of a billion pounds in five years, which is big money.”
The business, which has secured Dr Shahrabani a series of accolades including an appearance on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe list, is now 14th in the UK on FT1000 Europe's fastest-growing companies.
As it all began to take off, however, he was forced to choose between the start-up and his boyhood dream of being a doctor — at the key moment when he was about to decide on an area of specialisation.
“Giving it all up was tough,” Dr Shahrabani says, “but there was a problem that needed solving and it was such an obvious problem. It really helped that we were both doctors and knew the system inside out.”
At the time, he had been torn between following in the footsteps of his father towards cardiology or, inspired by an early brush with death, becoming an ear, nose and throat surgeon.
During his first-year studying medicine at the University of Sheffield, Dr Shahrabani learnt that a consistently blocked nose was actually a vascular tumour, known as a juvenile nasopharyngeal angiofibroma, growing from his nasal cavity into his brain.
The condition affects about one in 1,000,000 men, and though benign can be life-threatening, particularly with any impact injury to the head.
“It brings me great joy to think I'm probably only one of two Omanis to ever have had it in the past 10 years,” he jokes.
For Dr Shahrabani, the diagnosis came as a shock since one of his favourite past-times as a teenager had been the somewhat aggressive sport of Gaelic football.
He considers himself fortunate not to have been hit in the face during his many competitive tours across the Gulf region. “All of those times playing with that rock solid ball … ” he muses.
Dr Shahrabani attended British School Muscat, where his passion for the team sport traditionally played in Ireland was nurtured by Thomas English, his charismatic physics teacher who also doubled up as goalkeeper.
“You’re talking to an international Gaelic player – it’s on the CV,” Dr Shahrabani says, smiling.
When he thinks back to his schooling, he has countless fond memories but particularly recalls the profound effect of a Connecting Culture expedition when he was one of 14 people selected from across the world for a week-long trip in the mountains of Oman.
The trekkers walked for eight hours a day, before gathering around the fire in the evenings to discuss real-world issues such as politics and education, finding ways to converse despite the language barriers.
Today, the Sultanate of his birth is still regarded as home for Dr Shahrabani, who describes himself as Omani-British while “dearly” holding on to the fact that he is 100 per cent of Iraqi blood.
His parents left their homeland in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein was in power, with Rashid forced to exit in secret because of a block on certain professions leaving Iraq.
He made his way to the UK, working in hospitals across the country and meeting his future wife at a family gathering in London.
Later, the couple jumped at the invitation to set up Oman’s first cardiology department, at The Royal Hospital, where their efforts earnt the family honorary citizenship granted by Sultan Qaboos bin Said for services to the country.
Ahmed was born in the hospital in 1991. His sister, Deena, now 26, came along a few years later and has enjoyed an equally successful career, studying biomedical sciences at University College London and a healthcare management degree at Imperial Business School.
Dr Shahrabani has managed to visit his ancestral home only twice, the first time in 2003 when the family drove 12 hours from Jordan to Iraq when his grandfather was dying from cancer.
It was a fraught trip: there was danger associated with his father entering the country when he had not formally left it; and the young Ahmed contracted gastroenteritis from drinking the local water.
“The ambulance I was taken to hospital in had no doors,” he says. “It's such a strong memory of the state of Iraq back then.
The second trip was in the summer of 2013 when, as a medical student, Dr Shahrabani completed a three-week work placement at a hospital in northern Iraq to compare the provision of psychiatric care in the Arab world with that in the West.
“On the first day at the hospital, it was as if a meteorite had landed because there was a massive crater in the middle of the floor, AK-47s hanging off the palm trees on the way there and sewage flowing down the hospital corridor,” he says.
It was a far cry from the medical wards he had seen even in Oman or, afterwards, in the UK — though he would go on to encounter scenes “like a war zone” in his adopted country, too.
In the initial chaos of the unfolding coronavirus pandemic, Dr Shahrabani unfroze his medical licence and undertook an intensive revision course after a four-year absence to work weekends on the Covid front line.
“I'd see up to six people dying a day — something I normally saw in a year practising as a junior doctor,” he says. “Seeing patients die, after being on video calls with their relatives, was horrible.”
One loss was particularly hard to bear, that of his beloved father, who died from pneumonia a year ago at the age of 72 in the hospital in Oman where he had once worked.
Dr Shahrabani Snr’s deterioration from dementia had begun seven years earlier, but he had still been able to guide his son during Ahmed’s early years as a junior doctor.
“Dementia is a horrible, horrible disease, a cancer of the brain so to speak,” he says. “He had such a cognitively superior brain, and it was an aggressive deterioration in a really sad but fascinating way as well.
“Dad’s short-term memory might have gone, but I would hand him a very complex ECG and he knew it inside out.”
When Dr Shahrabani is not on shift on the Covid wards, he can often be found racing his classic Austin 1275 Mini Cooper around circuits across the UK, including Silverstone and Brands Hatch. In last year’s Mighty Minis Championship, he finished sixth out of 15 competitors.
He flies back to Oman three times a year to see his mother and head deep into the Empty Quarter with old school friends to camp and go off-roading on motorbikes and buggies.
“That’s how I switch off,” Dr Shahrabani says. “It’s quite nice having a beach or a desert to yourself with no humans around and no mobile phone reception.”
He has also held discussions with the Ministry of Health to bring Locum’s Nest to the country. Oman has the physical assets but its need for human resources might be well met by Locum’s Nest enabling a transfer of medical knowledge through the secondment of specialist UK doctors on temporary placements.
In the meantime, Dr Shahrabani will focus on expanding the company’s presence in the British healthcare system, putting to use his communication skills to promote the benefits of interacting within a community until every doctor and nurse in the NHS is using the app.
It is his driving ambition but he does have another on a different sort of platform. This one involves a little green Mini with 'SHAHRABANI' emblazoned across its front grille that he plans to propel all the way to a podium place in the 2022 championship.