Setting the record straight on the VA's 'Blue Button'

In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama gave a shout out--so to speak--to electronic medical records when he mentioned how veterans can now go to the Department of Veterans Affairs website and download their records "with a click of the mouse."

He was referring to an initiative announced last August that introduced a web-based feature--better known as the "Blue Button"--that could be used by veterans to download their personalized health information and share it with their providers or care coordinators. But some are saying that the President may have overstated the usefulness of the Blue Button at the current time.

The button does permit vets to view "self-entered health metrics" such as blood pressure, weight, heart rates, test results, military health history, and other health-related information. And, it also allows them to access data about their VA prescription histories, wellness reminders, and VA-related health appointments.

But, according to an article appearing this month in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, vets still cannot obtain from their records data such as physicians' notes or X-rays.

"The things they can download today are generally the kinds of things you'd fill in on a clipboard when you go to see a specialist," Peter Levin, PhD, a co‑creator of the Blue Button, told the Times.

One veterans' group, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was critical of the President's statement in the State of the Union address. "The President's comments are misleading to service members, veterans and the American public who now think that this system is in place and functional, while it is clearly not," the group says in a statement on its website.

The group said that it is requesting that the White House "set the record straight" on the current capacity of the medical records system.

Changes, though, already appear to be afoot for the site, My HealtheVet. Levin, who is the VA's chief technology officer, said that in March, data on allergies is expected to be released, and later, lab results, such as for chemistry and hematology, will be available.

Still, there is an urgency to get the Blue Button concept right--to permit users to obtain the data they need to make appropriate and informed decisions about their health. As envisioned by the White House, the Blue Button initiative will be expanded (beyond several thousand users) to all Medicare beneficiaries in the not so distant future. Commercial uses of the Blue Button are not that far behind.

And there's another important factor to consider, as well: Providing access to more data will ease the burdens veterans confront upon their return from overseas, according to Adam Bryant, who served with the Army National Guard in Afghanistan and is IAVA's membership director.

"We're just looking for the VA to step into the 21st century," said Bryant, in an interview with the Huffington Post. "These folks put their lives on the line and could give so much more if they were just given basic support when they come home." - Jan