Blue button medical records program logs its millionth user

As the patient health records access system grows within federal agencies, efforts are under way to expand the concept to the private sector.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Sept. 13, 2012

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Two years after the “blue button” program was launched by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, it has reached a significant milestone.

In August, the patient medical records access program logged its millionth user, according to the VA. The milestone comes at a time when the federal government is encouraging widespread use of the blue-button idea in the private sector as a way of better engaging patients with their health care.

The blue-button concept was created in 2010 when the VA, Dept. of Defense and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services teamed up with a group convened by the Markle Foundation to discuss ways to give patients on-demand access to their medical records. The program allows patients to view, print, download or share their health records from online with the click of a mouse on a blue-button icon.

“Since President Obama announced the availability of blue button two years ago, VA has worked tirelessly with our sister agencies to make online access to personal health records convenient, reliable and safe,” said Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs, in a prepared statement. “I am very pleased with our progress.”

After reaching more than 300,000 patients by August 2011, the VA launched a contest to expand the blue-button program to the private sector. It offered $50,000 to the first team to develop a personal health record system with a blue button and successfully put the technology on the websites of at least 25,000 physicians across the U.S. RelayHealth, a subsidiary of McKesson Corp., won that contest the next month.

UnitedHealthcare adopted the blue-button concept in March and announced in July that it plans to expand the program to all of its 26 million members by mid-2013.

“We are just thrilled to see how blue button has expanded so quickly, both in richness of its content as well as the number of institutions that have pledged to make their data available,” U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park said in a prepared statement.

The blue-button concept is an open-source program, meaning it can be used by other technology vendors to be incorporated into their products. Farzad Mostashari, MD, the national health information technology coordinator at the Dept. of Health and Human Services, has been a proponent of the blue-button concept. His office launched a contest in June aimed at taking information downloaded from the blue button and “mashing it” with information from other sources such as community health data or administrative data to help patients better manage their health and health care finances.

The blue button is being looked at as an option for EHR vendors as they upgrade their systems in preparation for stage 2 of the federal meaningful use incentive program. Under the stage 2 requirements, physicians will have to offer patients the ability to download their health information, and ensure that at least 5% do so.

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