Blue Button ® gives access to health information

Peter Levin

By Rachel Lunsford,  Jim Speros and Peter Levin

US Department of Veterans Affairs

You’ve probably already heard about the “Blue Button” offered by the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  Blue Button enables Veterans, service members, and Medicare beneficiaries to download their personal health record as a simple, human-readable file.

We’re happy to report that the Blue Button personal health record is gaining traction and market momentum.  It is now recognized as a convenient and safe way for individuals to access their personal health records.  In fact, Walgreens, Aetna, and PatientsLikeMe have publicly committed to offer Blue Button download capability on their websites, and others such as Microsoft and Northrop Grumman already offer Blue Button data services.

Rachel Lunsford

The Blue Button project is an important part of the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER), one of Secretary Shinseki’s major initiatives.  VLER is a comprehensive program designed to facilitate the safe, secure, and automated transfer of health and personnel records between the VA and the DoD, as well as between the VA and private sector healthcare providers.  As Secretary Shinseki has previously said, Service members should have “. . . no air gap in the transfer of those records when uniforms come off at the end of their military service.”  Now we are thinking about how to make electronic records more accessible to everyone, inside and outside of the VA.

Better health care is really about better health. And there’s a lot of evidence that suggests patient-centered models are the best way to lower costs and improve outcomes.  The Blue Button personal health record is a cornerstone of that model.  No matter where you see your doctor or what specialty care she is providing you, now you can take your health records with you.  Not everything in your health record, but many things.  And the list of what is included is growing fast.

Jim Speros

You might prefer to print out your health records and carry them to your doctor. Or if you’re a smart phone-toting patient, you might prefer to download, store, review, and transmit them to your doctor right from your phone. With Blue Button, both are in easy reach.  And when NwHIN Direct comes on line, you’ll even be able to send them in a secure email.

The power behind the idea is its utter simplicity.  When you download your Blue Button data and share it with your doctor, not only can she read it easily, her computer – with your permission – can also “read” it, interpret it too. For example, when you look inside your Blue Button file and you’ll see the word NAME followed by your name.  We’ve made it easy for the programmers to know that a name like Sally or Jack will follow.  In other words, we’re letting computers do more of the sorting and analysis work, while still making it easy for people to see what’s inside the envelope.

In fact, data downloaded from VA can even be imported into to your clinician’s electronic health record, regardless of the system she uses. Again, the receiving computer can be programmed to recognize a string of text – say “acetaminophen” – and intelligently place it in the correct field—“medications” – within your physician’s system.  

The simple Blue Button data format affords greater flexibility and interoperability between the many different electronic health records outside of the VA health care system. If this seems like science-fiction instead of science-fact, just look to the support services organizations like Microsoft and Northrop Grumman already offer.  Each of those programs parses the information from your Blue Button file and displays it in a useful way. 

And we’re just getting started. With the Blue Button Provider Contest (see footnote) <; sponsored by VA, any developer— from garage-based innovators to large corporations — is challenged to create a Blue Button for 25,000 physicians. The winner’s Blue Button capability must be interoperable with VA’s Blue Button so that users can easily move their files around to best manage their care.

So next time you visit your doctor, ask if she can receive your Blue Button personal health file.

“Blue Button,”  the Blue Button logo and the slogan “Download My Data” are registered service marks of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  A perpetual royalty-free license to use the Blue Button® Marks is available at

Peter Levin is the Chief Technology Officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs.  

Rachel Lunsford manages the Blue Button project at VA and is a Special Assistant to the Chief Technology Officer. Jim Speros is Special Assistant to the Chief Technology Officer.

0 thoughts on “Blue Button ® gives access to health information

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