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Blue Button: Driving a Patient-Centered Revolution in Health Care

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A lot can happen in a year.

Last October, I wrote about a promising new offering for people looking to take control of their own health and health care decisions. Known as "blue button," this simple (but rather revolutionary) technology offers individuals the ability to download their own health information with just the click of a mouse. They can then use and share this information however they may choose -- with doctors, care providers, or even third-party applications designed to help them track and make sense of their own personal data.

Born out of a collaborative working group convened by the Markle Foundation, the blue button was beta-tested and then implemented by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The immediate demand from their patients and beneficiaries was inspiring.

Recognizing the disruptive potential of the blue button idea, we at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation took an interest in it at an early stage of its growth. One of our aims is to help individuals understand, identify and receive high quality care. As such, exploring and supporting the development of technologies that enable people to make informed decisions is one way we hope to realize our vision of placing patients at the center of their care. Health data download capabilities modeled after the blue button approach can really move the ball forward in that regard. People can review their health records or claims information, educate themselves about conditions, procedures, medications, or test results found in their records, and share their information with family, friends and their health care providers. They can also point out errors they find and make sure that they are corrected.

I concluded my last post on the blue button idea by observing that the federal government had taken a strong step forward to give people access to their own health information, and that it was time for more in the private sector to do the same.

Not even a year later, I'm thrilled to look back and see that progress is being made -- in terms of both demand and implementation. Well over 400,000 veterans, members of the military, and Medicare beneficiaries have downloaded their data using the Department of Veterans Affairs', the Department of Defense's, and CMS' Blue Button, showing just how desired this functionality is by individuals. Equally inspiring is how much the private sector has taken up the challenge to make the health data they hold available to their patients and beneficiaries. Aetna, United Health Care, Walgreens and PatientsLikeMe are just a few of the major care providers, insurers and patient groups that have either implemented or committed to offering their consumers a blue button download capability.

Broader use of the blue button approach also offers opportunity to mobile app and software developers working in the burgeoning consumer e-health field. As the blue button download capability becomes more widespread, we expect to see more and more apps designed to take the data individuals can download and turn it into useful information and valuable tools used to manage one's health like reminders to get preventive services or refill a prescription, or a list of the lowest price outlets to order medications. To encourage these innovations, several organizations (including RWJF) have sponsored "developer challenges," and we expect more to be announced.

It's clear that we're in the middle of a health care quality revolution. But to improve outcomes on a broad scale, we need to empower individuals to become active participants in their care. Download capabilities like blue button can help do that, which is why we at RWJF are continuing to encourage their spread. Today, I am excited to announce the launch of bluebuttondata.org, a web site that is a one-stop-shop for anyone (individuals, providers, insurers, health care organizations, patient groups, mobile app/software developers) who is interested in finding out how they can join the revolution.

I encourage you to help us harness the early momentum blue button has made and turn it into a full-fledged movement. Spread the word. Or better yet, visit the site and commit to transforming health care as we know it.