Dr. John McElligott had spent much of his professional career dealing with work-related injuries and illness, co-founding Occupational Health Systems in 1998.
While serving as medical director for OHS, which oversees the medical operations of some 650 trucking and manufacturing companies, McElligott began focusing more on the unique medical needs of truck drivers.
With businessman Dave Duncan, OHS co-founder Lisa Lane and others, McElligott launched what has turned out to be a comprehensive study of drivers' work and health habits.
The results led to the formation of Professional Drivers Medical Depots, a nationwide network of walk-in medical clinics for truckers.
The goal was to give drivers quick-and-easy roadside access to physicals and drug testing, saving them the time and safety risk of traveling off route to a less convenient medical facility.
The company opens its second location, in West Memphis, Ark., in June, while clinics in Atlanta; Shreveport, La.; Peru, Ill.; and Mebane, N.C. are expected to open by the end of the year.
Long-term plans call for 60 to 80 centers at truck stops across the nation. PDMD has contracts in travel centers nationwide, including Petro and Sapp Brothers, and is expecting a new contract with TravelCenters of America to expand its geographic market.
The Knoxville site represents an investment of $160,000, but McElligott expects subsequent clinics to cost less as technological and procedural kinks are ironed out.
According to McElligott, the first two clinics are cash flowing with revenues generated by payments from both individual truckers and trucking companies. The Knoxville location gets approximately 75 percent of its revenues from truckers' employers.
"Right now, our goal is just to break even," said McElligott, who is not taking a salary to help streamline costs.
Currently, McElligott and his board of directors make up the investment team, with financial backing coming from FSGBank.
Board members include Lane and Duncan as well as Bill Buzbee, former senior vice president of operations for IdleAire Technologies Corp.
The team is also trying to raise $10 million in funds through private placement memorandums.
McElligott says that rather than sending them out to venture capitalists, they are targeting specific individuals who have a heart for this niche of the healthcare market.
"We're only sending it out to people who care about people. People who invest because they care are rare birds," McElligott said.
According to McElligott, the process of obtaining various permits from the different municipalities involved is proving to be the primary inhibitor of faster growth.
The concept of roadside clinics for truckers isn't a new one, but McElligott and his board members are determined to learn from the mistakes of those that have failed.
"You can't just build a clinic. You have to network with local hospitals and pharmacies," he said.
Other PDMD innovations include staffing sites with physicians' assistants instead of medical doctors and storing patients' medical histories on plastic cards, a system that ensures privacy while also allowing drivers to carry their records from city to city.
The early development of PDMD reached critical mass as McElligott and his team began to process the data from their initial research, gathered through a comprehensive study of thousands of professional truckers.
The statistics were sobering. The average life expectancy for a truck driver today is 57, while 70 percent of drivers take some kind of blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol or heart medication.
"We've found that drivers are the most medically neglected profession ever," he said.
PDMD's services include Department of Transportation physicals and drug screenings, first aid treatment, treatment of minor illnesses, prescription refills and annual flu shots and pneumonia vaccines.
Prior to becoming a physician, McElligott, 61, worked as an occupational health consultant and received a master's degree in occupational health and safety from the University of Tennessee in 1982. He started medical school the following year, completing his residency at Yale University.
After returning to East Tennessee in 1989, McElligott practiced as an internist until some of his former consulting clients began recruiting him to assist them with workers compensation claims.
As Department of Transportation regulations wrapped the trucking industry in red tape during the 1990s, his services were in even greater demand. A growing client base led to his co-founding Occupational Health Systems.
Through PDMD, McElligott enjoys working on the front lines in treating a medically underserved demographic.
"This is like practicing medicine in the cowboys and Indians days," he said. "This is the most fun I've had in my life."
Mitch Moore is a freelance writer in Maryville.