White House pushes access to personal health records with new initiative

Federal officials are encouraging healthcare providers to make portable health records more accessible and portable by making them electronic (Photo: Phil McCarten, Reuters).
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Brooks Hays

A federal tool designed to give veterans greater control over their healthcare is catching on in the private sector.

The Blue Button technology is the brainchild of the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) and its chief technology officer, Peter Levin. Levin just wanted a simple way for veterans to download text files of their personal healthcare records (PHRs). The system launched in 2010; now Kaiser Permanente, McKesson, Microsoft HealthVault, Aetna, United HealthGroup and others have committed to adopting it, as Information Week reports.

That's a big deal, says Levin.

"Everybody can agree that this is government at its best. We didn't spend a lot of money and it didn't need an act of Congress," he told AOL last year.

But Levin's idea didn't come out of the blue. The Blue Button project was developed in response to a chorus of persistent servicemembers, who for years had demanded better access to their health records.

Federal  officials hope the system can become a national model. The "Blue Button for America" campaign aims to initially boost enrollees from one million to 10 million, and from there to the entire country, reports ModernHealthcare.com.

The idea behind a single, downloadable health record isn’t just convenience, Levin says. It also democratizes the communication between provider and patient, reduces the hassles of switching to another doctor or insurer, and enables patients to find and point out errors in their records.

“What we're discovering to our delight is that patients want to be involved," he told AOL, adding that users  can now bring their own complete medical history to a doctor’s office on a USB stick instead of filling out a clipboard full of forms in the waiting room.

That change won’t happen overnight, though. As ModernHealthcare editor Joseph Conn points out, the government recently passed up an opportunity to require that providers give patients next-day access to their updated electronic medical records after being discharged from the hospital.

"The American healthcare industry is like a big ship. It turns slowly. In today's financially troubled waters, the nation should no longer tolerate that historic lack of agility,” he writes.

Patient demand may speed that process along. Many people are unaware that downloadable medical records exist, Julie Dooling, director of health information management solutions for the American Health Information Management Association, told InformationWeek. “As the technology gets better and as more people start to adopt PHRs,” she said, that will change.