The technology, called Blue Button, is a Web applet that enables the downloading of medical records as text or in PDF format--and soon, in machine-readable XML format--from backend databases. The Department of Veterans Affairs developed Blue Button and launched it in 2010 on the agency's My HealtheVet portal as a way of giving military veterans online access to their medical records.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Department of Defense soon followed, and the White House and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT are promoting Blue Button as a technology that can provide access to medical records in the private sector. The White House's new Blue Button for America initiative recently brought in technology fellows as part of an effort to enable all Americans to download their own health records. Aetna, Humana, McKesson, United Health Care, and Walgreens are among the companies already pledging their support.
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The rapid uptake of Blue Button, with the one millionth user downloading her records last month, "shows you this country's latent need to access their own health data," said VA CTO Peter Levin, in an interview with InformationWeek. "If you have a parent, if you are a parent, or if you have a pulse you want to keep, you need access to health data, whether it's your child's immunization records or your parents' medications."
Just how far Blue Button can go in the private sector remains to be seen. According to a recent Deloitte survey, almost two-thirds of patients want their health records to be more easily accessible, and government programs to incentivize the meaningful use of electronic health records will soon have some requirements that patients be able to download and share health information. However, healthcare providers already make electronic records available to patients in a variety of formats, so Blue Button must compete with existing technologies. And issues around interoperability, privacy, and security remain.
Blue Button's supporters are forging ahead despite these concerns. The types of data available in a Blue Button file are expanding to include emergency room visits, in-patient stays, drug prescriptions, diagnoses, outpatient services, imaging, and lab results.
And Blue Button isn't a one-way street; patients can share data with their doctors and others in the healthcare chain. Aetna plans to let its members send data to their doctors through its website. And some doctor's offices can accept Blue Button data from iPhones, via Bluetooth connections to their office systems.
Companies such as United Health Care, with 34 million customers, represent a huge potential market for Blue Button's capabilities. The health insurance company began a Blue Button pilot project last year in Nevada and is now making the technology more widely available through its Web portal. "Blue Button is coming to represent not just a way to get records from the VA, but to represent the idea that all patients should be able to get their records," said United Healthcare's military and veteran services VP Chuck Officer.