The Blue Button Movement: Kicking off National Health IT Week with Consumer Engagement

Lygeia Ricciardi | September 12, 2013

Next week the Department of Health & Human Services – and ONC – is helping to kick off National Health IT Week (#NHIT) with the third annual Consumer Health IT Summit: Accelerating the Blue Button Movement. Registration is full, but you can sign up for the wait list or participate virtually online. This year’s National Health IT Week Consumer Summit celebrates consumer and patient engagement in health and healthcare via health information technology. This year we’ve decided to include “Blue Button” in its title. We get a lot of questions about what “Blue Button” is and what it stands for. It’s evolved rapidly in the last few years, so I’d like to help set the record straight.

Blue Button is a Tool for Consumers

On the simplest level, Blue Button is a literal “button” appearing on many websites that lets consumers get their health information online. The Veterans Administration (VA) was first to display the Blue Button symbol on its patient portal in 2010, and veterans quickly embraced it. Then, as now, a veteran could click on the Blue Button icon to securely download their health information electronically. The VA’s definition of Blue Button specified a particular technical format (ASCII text or PDF), which enabled patients to read, print, or store their health records in a straightforward but bare bones way.

Soon, Blue Button spread beyond its VA roots to other government agencies and the private sector. It became so popular that last year leadership of the Blue Button initiative was transferred to ONC, which, as the “national coordinator” and champion of consumer engagement in health is well positioned to support its nationwide growth. The VA and other agencies continue to use Blue Button in practice and to help ONC improve it.

To encourage Blue Button’s growth and keep up with a rapidly changing technical environment, ONC has both loosened technical requirements for use of the Blue Button logo and developed voluntary guidelines for implementing Blue Button in a more structured way that is consistent with Meaningful Use requirements. The Blue Button Plus guidelines,) which were developed collaboratively with 68 volunteer organizations, enable organizations such as doctors’ offices, hospitals, and payers to standardize the structure and transport of health information and electronic health records to support the use of more sophisticated tools that allow consumers to better share their Blue Buttoned-information with others they trust and plug them into in apps and tools. The Blue Button Plus technical guidelines also make it easier for consumers to get automatic updates to their health records (e.g. “set it and forget it”).  There are ongoing opportunities to contribute to the development of additional standards guidelines associated with Blue Button for those who are interested.

Blue Button is a Social Movement  

When a new concept emerges, creating a word and/or image to represent it can help to solidify it. Getting a copy of your own health records (especially electronically) is a relatively novel behavior for most people, and many are not aware that they have the legal right, under HIPAA, to do so.

Other “concept” symbols (as opposed to brands for a specific product) include the EnergyStar and Organic Foods symbols, which were both created by the federal government and are now widely used by the private sector. In addition, the recycling symbol, like Blue Button, is both an action-oriented signpost (“put your plastic bottles in this bin”) and something more (it can convey the aspiration: “protect the environment!”).

Similarly, the Blue Button symbol is becoming a rallying cry for change, a shorthand way of referring to the growing reality and future potential of consumer and patient engagement supported by better health information and tools. Across the country the Blue Button is popping up on patient portals and health education websites, on smart phone apps and in doctors’ offices. Trade press, bloggers and Twitter are abuzz about it. Bill Clinton even talked about it at the HIMSS conference last spring, and large, influential patient advocacy organizations such as the American Cancer Society are adopting it, urging their members to look for the Blue Button to access and use their own health information

Blue Button is the Future

With more than half of Americans using smart phones today, and an abundance of popular health apps and tools such as digital pedometers, glucose monitors, and sleep sensors, consumers are becoming an undeniable part of the equation for better health and healthcare through health information technology.

Today, via ONC’s Blue Button Pledge Program more than 450 organizations are committed to making personal health information available to Americans nationwide via their providers, health plans, labs, and pharmacies; building tools to make health information actionable for patients; and/or spreading the word about why all this matters. That’s a great start, but we are only at the beginning of an exciting journey. Won’t you join us?

If you are a consumer, patient or caregiver (and who isn’t?):

  • See if your healthcare provider or plan offers Blue Button, and encourage your loved ones to do the same

If you represent an organization in the healthcare field:

  • Take the Blue Button Pledge
  • Use the Blue Button logo and phrase
  •  Help spread the word. Blog, tweet #BlueButton, and use other social media to talk to consumers about the importance of engaging in your health. Use our animated video and stay tuned for some announcements about new materials to be released next week
  • If you provide consumer access to health information  or an app that lets consumers use their health records, get listed on our “Blue Button Hub” website — more details to come next week