The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT this fall will launch a national campaign to boost consumer use of Blue Button technology to securely access their health records electronically.

Originally launched in 2010 by the Veterans Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Department of Defense, Blue Button has expanded to include both public and private health record “data-holders”--including provider organizations, health plans, and pharmacies--yet is still not well known by most Americans.   

The national Blue Button campaign, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 6, will include public service announcements posted on partner websites to get the word out on how consumers can access their own health data. According to Lygeia Ricciardi, director of ONC’s Office of Consumer eHealth, a lack of public demand for digital health records is among the greatest obstacles to increased consumer engagement in their own health.

“As with the whole Blue Button initiative, this is deliberately a multi-stakeholder effort,” Ricciardi told Health Data Management. “We at ONC developed the public service announcements and we can run them. But, what we really want is to have a multi-stakeholder community so that our efforts can be leveraged by others. Many consumers may actually prefer to hear about online access to health information from their doctor, their pharmacy, or from a consumer group that they trust like the American Cancer Society.”

ONC’s vision for Blue Button is that any consumer in any healthcare setting can view, download, share and use their personal health data from any provider, hospital, pharmacy, or other data-holder of their personal health information.

Ricciardi said ONC has a three-pronged strategy for Blue Button: access to information, making information actionable, and changing attitudes. “During most of my time at ONC, we’ve been primarily focused on getting the other two prongs going,” she said. “It’s time to really hammer home on that third piece which is about shifting attitudes and that’s about just sheer outreach in some cases.”

Bettina Experton, M.D., CEO of IT solutions provider Humetrix, which makes the iBlueButton mobile app, said “what has been missing is a wide communication campaign to reach out to the public.” Experton added that she wishes the national Blue Button consumer campaign had started earlier, but recognizes that ONC had other priorities.  

ONC has the responsibility for taking the public-private Blue Button initiative nationwide, a formidable task that has a lot riding on it with direct consequences for the EHR meaningful use program. With Stage 2 requirements to give patients the ability to view, download and transmit their health data electronically, Blue Button is seen by ONC as a critical component of empowering patients to be partners in their health and healthcare through access to and use of personal health information.

One of the major benefits of Blue Button being touted by ONC is that it allows consumers to check their health records for errors. For example, an ONC-funded pilot project at Geisinger Health System showed that patients can be effectively engaged online to improve the quality of the information in their medical record by helping to spot errors such as outdated information and omissions such as medications prescribed by another provider.

For Medicare beneficiaries, the CMS Blue Button currently provides three years of Medicare Parts A, B, and D claims history. However, it has limited functionality and scalability, making it difficult for beneficiaries to use and share their health information. “To realize the full potential of sharing Medicare claims with beneficiaries, CMS needs to make these data available to beneficiaries in a usable and patient-friendly format,” according to a CMS website. “In addition, a Blue Button platform that allows third party services to build apps and other tools that can easily collect, present, and share the data (in a manner that ensures the privacy and security of the data) will make the data more actionable for patients.”

Ricciardi said CMS is going to hire an “HHS innovation fellow” to implement the next phase of its Blue Button function for Medicare beneficiaries so that information can be plugged into more useful third party apps and tools. She believes the redesign of the CMS Blue Button as a data-as-a-service platform will “upgrade its Blue Button capabilities to make them more compelling to users.”

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