Doctors can remove a heart from one person and put it into another, give you titanium bones, restore sight to the blind, and stop plagues in their tracks. They routinely cure diseases that were once death sentences, and perform surgery using lasers and robots.

But one procedure they have yet to master is keeping track of it all. Just try organizing your health records if you are chronically ill and have to visit multiple specialists, or if you are caring for an elderly loved one in the same condition. Sure, individual hospitals have electronic medical record systems, but does grandpa’s nursing home tie into the same system? How about his family doctor and cardiologist?

Probably not. And it’s probably a nightmare to keep track of it all, as former Peace Corps member and pharmaceutical company salesman John Phelan discovered in 2005, when he went through several family illnesses and sought comprehensive medical records for his children. He found that different healthcare institutions had different electronic records systems that don’t talk to each other easily, and many offices still relied on paper records.

Phelan is one of many entrepreneurs who have recognized this problem and tried to solve it. Phelan founded Zweena seven years ago. The self-funded startup with the Moroccan-inspired name and Yahoo-like cartoon avatars was one of a multitude of companies hoping to help customers digitize their medical records. Customers of Zweena, located at Zweenahealth.com (Zweena.com belongs to a belly dancer in Oregon) pay a monthly fee of $10, plus a per-page fee to request and scan paper medical records from healthcare providers. The fee ranges from $3.25 to $4.25 per page, plus fees of up to a dollar a page charged by doctor’s offices.

Employees of Zweena, which recently expanded from 71 Tamarack Circle to Hamiilton Avenue in Hopewell, take data from medical records and enter it into an online format that makes it easy to keep track of doctor’s visits, vital signs over time, prescriptions, allergies and other information that could be vital for a patient or doctor to know. Customers can share information with their doctors or emergency personnel through Zweena or the HealthVault mobile device application, which works with Zweena and about 200 other medical records systems.

Phelan found the service was a hard sell for consumers, and Zweena took a while to get off the ground. He resorted to signing customers up at Trenton Thunder games to beta test the service.

“Very few customers were willing to pay,” he says. “We had free service for the first few months. What we ended up seeing was that people were willing to sign up for the free service, but they didn’t understand the value of the service, and why they should be paying for it.”

It looked like Zweena might crash and burn like so many other tech startups. But changes in the healthcare industry, and some decisions on Phelan’s part, have kept the company going.

First, Phelan noticed that although general consumers didn’t want to pay to access their health records, there were groups of people who did. In particular, chronically ill patients and those caring for elderly relatives needed the convenience that Zweena offered.

“One group is individuals in their 40s and 50s who have parents living at home or somewhere else, and Mom and Dad are going through a whole lot of medical care. Loved ones and sons- and daughters-in-law are becoming increasingly frustrated at their inability to get Mom and Dad’s records through the healthcare system. With the advent of technology, you have a very capable younger demographic saying, ‘this is so frustrating. I’m not going to take a week of vacation and collect my parents’ records and try to figure this out.’”

The second group is the chronically ill patients themselves: people who see a large number of physicians over a long period of time. “They saw value in paying a company to bring in and consolidate their records so they don’t have to stress about sharing multitudes of papers with different providers,” he says.

Those are now his main groups of clients on the consumer side. Zweena also offers services to doctors’ offices (healthcare providers in industry parlance) and institutions. In particular, high end doctors who provide “concierge” services to wealthy patients are interested in providing their patients with Zweena’s services, and perhaps haven’t yet bought their own electronic medical record systems.

Phelan now employs seven people (all of them on a part-time basis, with no health benefits, to control costs.) Zweena recently struck a deal with Virtua Health Systems in South Jersey whereby Virtua would promote Zweena’s service.

Phelan hopes the lucrative business-to-business side of Zweena will grow, as hospitals receive incentives from the government, under the Affordable Care Act, to digitize records. Zweena recently struck a partnership with Geisinger Health System, a provider network in Pennsylvania, to be part of a community digital health portal between the network’s different hospitals, doctor’s offices, and nursing homes called the Keystone Beacon Community.

Because Zweena started at a time when paper records were dominant, the company has found a niche in the marketplace that other purely digitally focused companies have a hard time filling. Because it deals with paper records, Zweena is something of a stopgap between the paper world of the past and the digital future.

“We were here before the curve, and arguably, we’re ahead of the curve,” Phelan says. “We are a gap player.” — Diccon Hyatt

Zweena LLC, 57 Hamilton Avenue, Suite 302, Hopewell 08525; 609-651-4826; fax, 866-560-8543. John Phelan, founder & CEO. www.zweenahealth.com.

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