Last year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs launched the Blue Button Initiative in an effort to facilitate veterans’ access to their medical records, which they’d be able to share with doctors or insurers. Medicare, the Department of Defense, and the private sector have since adopted the concept. Earlier this month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation rolled out bluebuttondata.org, which it hopes will eventually give “all Americans” online access to their health data.
At a recent roundtable discussion with journalists, U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) CTO Todd Park explained his thoughts on the government program and the private sector’s interest in emulating it:
Basically [Blue Button] is this really simple initiative where Medicare beneficiaries, veterans, and military health beneficiaries all have secure websites where they can log on and look at their own data. So, Medicare beneficiaries at my medicare.gov can look at their own claims data. Veterans can go into My HealtheVet and look at their own personal health record. So Blue Button is basically a blue button, literally, that we deployed on these secure portals last October. It enables you to hit the button and download a copy of your own information, which we actually didn’t think was a big deal when we launched it. But it turns out to be a really big deal because it’s actually not a commonly replicated feature [in the private sector] for a bunch of reasons.
Park explained that veterans’ appetite for the technology was much greater than initially anticipated. The Department of Veterans Affairs initially expected, that if it “knocks the ball out of the park, maybe 25,000 veterans will download a copy of their own data.” It turns out that it exceeded that expectation eight times over:
To date, with actually very little marketing, because most people don’t know this exists, over 400,000 Americans have downloaded—Medicare beneficiaries, veterans, and member of the military have downloaded a copy of their own data. […] Here’s an interesting factoid: The number one Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that Medicare gets, by far, is Medicare beneficiaries asking for their own claims. So on our website, we’re looking at putting up a Blue Button that says “go get your own data! You can get it!
Park added that, after the service was launched, people from the private sector have approached HHS asking how it was possible to offer patients access to their own data.
[People asked us:] “Are you allowed under Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the privacy law in healthcare, to give people their own information electronically?” We said, “Yes! That act actually encourages that.” But [that type of questioning] illustrates a lot of the confusion that is out there. So, now more and more private-sector organizations have announced that they are going to Blue Button their data, too.
So, Aetna, at a recent event, announced that it has now Blue Buttoned its personal health record for 10-million people who were covered by Aetna. United Healthcare, Walgreens, and the states of Vermont and Indiana have announced that they were going to do the same thing. PatientsLikeMe, which is a very cool patient website, has said it is going to do the same thing. And, so, it’s starting to spread.
There’s a whole new site that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has launched called bluebuttondata.org that explains in like four sentences what Blue Button is because it’s so easy to explain: There’s a button, write four lines of code, hit the button and download your data.
This post is the second in a series based on a meeting with Todd Park. The first is titled “Harnessing the Power of Data: Todd Park’s Vision for Rebooting U.S. Healthcare“