Communications technologies have lifted the veil of secrecy on many things, and healthcare is one of them. John Phelan, founder and CEO of Zweena, a medical records access and advocacy firm on Everett Drive,believes the future of the healthcare industry will be fueled by an educated consumer and managed by an educated entrepreneurial class able to provide consumers with vital information.
Phelan’s business, begun after 17 years in the pharmaceutical industry and one set of frustrating experiences trying to get his hands on his family’s medical records, is healthcare information. Zweena converts paper medical histories to something patients can see online.
He sees his business as an archetype on the cusp of a movement toward consumer enlightenment. There is plenty of room for the entrepreneurially minded in healthcare, he says. And he believes we’ll see the proof within 10 years.
Phelan will speak at the joint Mercer Chamber/Greater Phila-delphia Chamber breakfast panel on how lifesciences drive economic growth on Wednesday, February 24, at 8 a.m. at the Nassau Inn. The breakfast is part of a series conducted by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber on various economic drivers. Cost: $35. Visit www.mercerchamber.org, or call 215-790-3607.
Healthcare information technology is a relatively new area, though it is promising enough to be part of curricula at most major trade and technical schools. Medical billing and coding, data conversion, and software development are the core of a field taught at such schools as Stevens Institute and DeVry University. Phelan speaks highly of these two programs in particular, saying that as more students graduate, the more the field spawns entrepreneurs who will form the bedrock of a growing industry.
Money, money, money. Like any industry, the healthcare information field will only grow if it is flush. Fortunately, Phelan says, the medical industry in general has been give a major endowment — $30 billion of federal stimulus money designed in part to help digitize the records of hospitals and doctors’ offices.
On the flip side, the government is getting punitive. By 2013 the federal government will penalize healthcare practices that do not have medical records available digitally. Such practices will be reimbursed at lower rates. This helps create incentives for healthcare outlets to trade their pens for keyboards, Phelan says. What needs to get straightened out is something called “meaningful use,” which is the consideration of how best to spend stimulus money on healthcare information technology.
Unfortunately, that’s about as specific as anyone has gotten on a definition. A formal definition, whenever it might come, will influence everything from the equipment in a doctor’s office to quality control in information exchange.
Consumer driven. Next to adult content, medical and health information is the most popular subject on the Internet. Phelan takes this as a sign that the financial health of the healthcare industry will be driven by educated consumers. People are becoming savvy enough to wend their way through the morass of bad information and find trustworthy sources, and the inherent cynicism of the 21st century has made people less willing to just accept what a doctor says. People want to know what they face and what they can expect.
The informed healthcare consumer will be like the informed buyer, Phelan says. Think of it like retail — patients will go to doctors and hospitals that they already have looked into, and which offer a good product. Ideally, healthcare agencies will be forced to stay ahead of the competition by proving they offer consistently good service, he says.
Phelan foresees some necessary adjustments to this future-normal. There will be mergers, buyouts, and closures by smaller businesses unable to keep pace. But he still likes the idea because if the system profits, that means it works, and consumers will benefit.
There are positive signs already. On February 11 Blue Cross/Blue Shield, a vocal supporter of a national electronic health records initiative, announced that it and fellow health insurance industry trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans will launch a pilot program in New Jersey that links five of the state’s largest insurers — Aetna, AmeriHealth NJ, CIGNA, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of NJ, and UnitedHealthcare — to a single web portal, allowing the hospitals to track patients’ coverage and claims. Regardless of the plan in which a patient is enrolled, doctors, patients, and hospitals can access the information online.
Phelan thinks this is a good first step, but only a good first one. He is for anything that improves a patient’s access to information, but wonders what happens when a patient leaves the area (and, thus his insurance network). “Portability is a big issue,” he says. Zweena is designed to be accessible to any patient, on any plan, from anywhere.
More than anything, Phelan is concerned with the lack of transparency in healthcare, Phelan says. If you want to buy a lawnmower, you can find everything from product reviews to technical specs before you buy. But numerous people, including himself, have had to face a confusing wall of silence when dealing with the medical establishment. Zweena began, in fact, because of Phelan’s continued frustrations with the medical establishment. Phelan lost his mother to breast cancer a few years ago and sought more comprehensive records than the ones that simply told him the name of the disease.
Without any provisions to maintain detailed histories, much less provide them to offspring, Phelan will be forever unable to know the type and extent of his mother’s illness. Why it concerns him centers on his two daughters, to whom he can offer no useful information.
Phelan’s wife also had an operation that begged several iterations of the question “How much does this procedure actually cost?” No one, from the doctors down to the patient, had a clue. Zweena seeks to enlighten consumers as to the true cost of healthcare, rather than just the amount of the co-pay.
Phelan launched Zweena in 2006 to collect all the lifelong medical records of each subscriber. The company keeps the information instantly updated and places it online (at www.zweenahealth.com) for patient viewing at the subscriber’s convenience.
A native of New York, Phelan earned degrees in English literature and economics from Columbia, then joined the Peace Corps. His time in Morocco treating polio victims was a turning point (the name of his company, in fact, is a Moroccan word meaning “beautiful child”). Convinced he wanted to work in healthcare in some form, he became a pharma salesman for Squibb, Novo Nordisk, and Wyeth. He decided to be an entrepreneur because he wanted to be an advocate for patients.
An entrepreneur’s market. With the amount of knowledge and technology out there changing the game, Phelan believes there is ample opportunity for the motivated entrepreneur. The healthcare industry will offer jobs in the technology, retail, and consumer ends, among others, and prime grounds for anyone looking to connect a more engaged and thoughtful consumer with a more transparent healthcare industry.
What he would like to see is more state-sponsored incentives to help such entrepreneurs get off the ground New Jersey, he says, has lagged behind other states and the hub of the burgeoning healthcare IT industry will be situated in the state most friendly to it.