‘Blue Button’ Provides Access to Downloadable Personal Health Data

In August, President Obama announced the creation of a new “Blue Button”—a web-based feature through which patients may easily download their health information and share it with health care providers, caregivers, and others they trust. Since then, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have beta-tested their respective systems—with great success.

Today the Administration is announcing the formal launch of Blue Button for Veterans and Medicare beneficiaries, as well as announcing the winners of a groundbreaking challenge by two leading foundations for private-sector vendors to create applications that have the potential to provide secure, reliable, and portable personal health records while supporting the Administration’s goal of encouraging greater use of health information technology, including electronic health records.

Veterans who log onto My HealtheVet at www.myhealth.va.gov and click the Blue Button can save or print information from their own health records. Using a similar Blue Button, Medicare beneficiaries who are registered users of www.mymedicare.gov   can log onto a secure site where they can save or print their Medicare claims and self-entered personal information. Data from of each site can be used to create portable medical histories that will facilitate dialog with Veterans’ and beneficiaries’ health care providers, caregivers, and other trusted individuals or entities.

This new option will help Veterans and Medicare beneficiaries save their information on individual computers and portable storage devices or print that information in hard copy. Having ready access to personal health information from Medicare claims can help beneficiaries understand their medical history and partner more effectively with providers. With the advent of the Blue Button feature, Medicare beneficiaries will be able to view their claims and self-entered information—and be able to export that data onto their own computer. The information is downloaded as an “ASCII text file,” the easiest and simplest electronic text format. This file is also easy to read by the individual; it looks like an organized report.

The My HealtheVet personal health record includes self-entered health metrics (including blood pressure, weight, and heart rate), emergency contact information, test results, family health history, military health history, and other health-related information. The ASCII text file that Veterans can download will include this information. As additional personal health information becomes available to VA patients through the My HealtheVet personal health record, this will also be added to the VA Blue Button download. The VA’s Blue Button system has generated an overwhelmingly positive response since its soft launch this summer; more than 60,000 Veterans have already used it to access their records.

Registered users of MyMedicare.gov have long been able to view their Medicare claims information, and they have been able to add their personal and health information such as emergency contact information, names of pharmacies and providers, self-reported allergies, medical conditions, and prescription drugs. Now, with the Blue Button, CMS is making it convenient and safe for them to download and share this information in an easy-to-read and portable format. The CMS Blue Button has generated a positive response since its soft launch as well; more than 5,600 beneficiaries have already used it to download their data.

An open-government initiative, Blue Button results from a collaboration between VA and HHS to develop an online feature that would enable Veterans and Medicare beneficiaries to easily read, use, and share their personal health information with providers and others they trust. The ASCII text file format was selected for its ease of use by individuals, while allowing computers to easily “read” the information.

In developing this opportunity, VA and CMS both stress the importance to users of protecting the electronic information on their personal computers with appropriate security measures. Once individuals download their data, they will need to ensure its safety—for example, by encryption or password protection.

As of today, Blue Button will be accessible to all My HealtheVet accounts—about one million Veterans in all—as well as 47 million Medicare enrollees. The VA and Medicare systems protect patient privacy by allowing access only to authenticated users. Also, reflecting the Obama Administration’s emphasis on fostering new innovation ecosystems, Blue Button is designed to encourage and accommodate improvements by third-party application developers.

In fact, to make this information even more useful, the Markle and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations recently challenged developers to create applications that expand on the Blue Button’s promise by helping consumers use their data to stay healthy and manage their care. Eighteen companies competed for the $2,500 prize and the opportunity to have coffee with Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus. Submissions were judged on their usefulness, potential impact on health, ease of use, and accessibly from a variety of computing platforms.

Today we are pleased to announce the winner of this challenge: Adobe’s Blue Button Health Assistant. This new “app” provides a comfortable and familiar user layout and eases the linkage of consumer information—including immunizations, allergies, medications, family health history, lab test results, and military service histories—among patients, providers, and caregivers using My HealtheVet, or claims data for those using the CMS Button.

Soon, Blue Button users may be able to augment the downloaded information that is housed on their computers—or that they transferred to a commercial personal health record or other health application—through automated connections to, and downloads from, major pharmacies including Walgreens and CVS; lab systems such as Quest and LabCorp; and an increasing number of inpatient and outpatient electronic medical records systems.

Adobe’s achievement, along with the recently announced Blue Button capability for Microsoft’s HeathVault, demonstrates the innovative power that advanced information technology can bring to healthcare. The Blue Button challenge has empowered tens of thousands of Americans and seeded a growth industry that should help lower healthcare costs and improve quality.

Aneesh Chopra is the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Associate Director for Technology in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

Todd Park is Chief Technology Officer at the Department of Health and Human Services

Peter L. Levin is Senior Advisor to the Secretary & Chief Technology Officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs

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