The Power of the Blue Button

Lygeia Ricciardi and Peter Levin | October 1, 2012

In August 2010, just 25 months ago,  President Obama announced that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was going to make Veterans’ personal health records available to them online with something called the “Blue Button.”  Blue Button is an incredibly simple idea. It puts electronic information in the hands of patients—safely, reliably, and conveniently.   

Imagine this situation: Your elderly parent lives in Washington D.C. Although she lives independently, and by herself, she still has a few chronic conditions that require daily medicines. One day a ferocious storm hits and knocks out the power to hundreds of thousands of residences. In the darkness, your Mom falls down, and needs to be brought to the emergency room. There’s no way that she’s going to remember all her medications—name, dose, frequency—and you’re not going to remember them either. Now we have a real, life-threatening problem.

This is a true story. This really happened.

Many people—especially healthy ones—don’t normally think about accessing their health information online and sharing it or adding it to a personal health record; it just doesn’t seem relevant. But, it can suddenly become incredibly relevant. For example, you’re on vacation with a burning fever and you have no idea which antibiotics you’re allergic to (Cefadroxil ? Exit Disclaimer Cefazolin? Exit Disclaimer Clindamycin? Exit Disclaimer). Or, there’s a flood or a fire and your personal health history is irrevocably lost.

But we have good news: the days of having to remember everything that ever happened to you are numbered. Pretty soon you won’t have to schlep your immunizations, medications, laboratory results, surgical history, films, and images in a suitcase full of records.

In the words of the President, “with the push of a button,” your personal health records will be downloaded and you can share them with your doctors and other people you trust. Just a few days after President Obama’s announcement, not only did VA launch the Blue Button, but the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) did as well.  Today, it has been used by more than 1 million beneficiaries of VA, DoD, and CMS health services, and has been adopted by the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program.

Now we want to turn Blue Button from a “noun”—from the data file that VA and others created—into a “verb,” an action, something you do to get your mother’s list of medications, your child’s immunization records, or wife’s appointments.

We want to make Blue Button available to all Americans. And a large part of that big ambition is making Blue Button more complete and even more useful—a strong example of what people can get when they ask for their personal health information. And most of all, we are going to make sure that people are aware that there is a Blue Button.

The one million people who already use Blue Button don’t have all the apps and tools that could potentially help them. For example, we need a way to map health trends over time, or point out possible mistakes or inconsistencies in the records. The data and tools will come faster if regular people (like you!) start asking for them.  If you are a member of the United Health Group, or Aetna, or some parts of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, you may already have access and not even know it.

It can be tough to talk to your doctor, or your insurance company, or your neighbor about access—never mind electronic access—to your personal health data. But, with the health care system rapidly going digital, and with the growing acceptance of a single, recognizable brand, we urge you to ask for your own health information at the click of a button—the Blue Button.

Policy-meets-opportunity-meets-technology-meets-innovation. It’s a winning recipe if ever there was one.

For More Information:

Blue Button

Personal Health Records