Elsewhere on the VA website today and probably in the papers tomorrow we can read an announcement about the winner of VA’s Blue Button® for All Americans Contest.  The winner is McKesson Corporation and its RelayHealth subsidiary.

But other than the fact that McKesson is going to donate the $50,000 prize – all of it – to the Wounded Warrior Project , so what?

Here’s what.   A year ago VA was the first health plan in the country to launch a Blue Button-enabled Personal Health Record (PHR) so Veterans could keep track of their own health data on My HealtheVet and download it any time they want.   Yes, it started small – most of the data had to be self-entered – but during the last year the VA Blue Button has become more robust.  Veterans can now download their VA prescriptions, diagnosed allergies, upcoming appointments and VA lab results.  And there is more to come.

Did I mention that VA’s Blue Button started small?   In the first month, 3,000 Veterans used the Blue Button to download their data.  We were hoping that during the first year, maybe 25,000 Veterans would use it.  As of a week or so ago, that number climbed to almost 425,000.

OK, so we underestimated the popularity of the Blue Button.

And speaking of popularity.  What we heard from Veterans is that while they liked having access to their VA health data, many go to non-VA doctors and hospitals and clinics.  And they thought it would be a great thing if they had Blue Button access to their data —wherever they got their care.

So we decided to do a contest.   Idea was that Veterans see doctors all across the country. So, we thought, if we could help 25,000 doctors across America make Blue Button-enabled PHRs available to, say, 10 million or so patients,  then a lot of those patients would include Veterans and their families.  And then Veterans could use the Blue Button to download their data – wherever they get their care.

The contest was announced in July and McKesson’s RelayHealth folks submitted an entry in September.   RelayHealth has an internet-based service they sell to doctors and hospitals and clinics across the country. This service includes a privacy-protected PHR where both the patient and their doctor can store data and the patient can download their own health information.

RelayHealth modified its PHR with Blue Button technology so patients can download their data in a simple text file which can be read, stored and printed from any computer anywhere without special software.   The RelayHealth PHR was, and remains, a free service to patients.

So the final question we had to ask was this:  Was the RelayHealth Blue Button-enabled PHR available to the patients of at least 25,000 doctors?   Could we get close to our informal goal of 10 million patients?

Um, well, not exactly.  Turns out the RelayHealth PHR is available to the patients of 200,000 doctors across America.  Doctors who take care of somewhere north of 17 million patients.  Including many hundreds of thousands if not millions of Veterans and their families.

OK, so once again we underestimated.

So what’s this mean for Veterans who use a Blue Button PHR which isn’t a VA Blue Button?  Good things, we think.

Veterans who get their care from VA already know the power of having access to their own health information.  Information which was previously difficult to get.  And with that information, better understanding of how they can take control of their own health.   Information easily kept so it’s not forgotten (what is the dosage of that yellow pill, anyhow?) and which can be printed and shared with another doctor if that’s what you want to do with it.

VA’s Blue Button makes this information available to the six million Veterans who choose to get their care from VA.  And with RelayHealth’s addition of Blue Button technology to its existing PHR, it’s now available to a lot of Veterans who get their care from doctors outside the VA system.

Jim Speros is Special Assistant to the VA Chief Technology Officer where, among other things, he coordinates contests under the America Competes Act for the VA Innovations Initiative (VAi2). Jim has extensive experience in public and private sector health plan operations.

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Published on Oct. 26, 2011

Estimated reading time is 3.6 min.

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  1. Charles T. Cauthen November 15, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Alex, Vince is right. Health care is the biggest problem I’ve encountered with the VA. Without your health, you are in a place that’s painful, confusing, frustrating and dangerous. I do not want other vets not to seek health care when they are sick. I can only speak from my own experiance and what I’ve observed and heard from VA hosp workers, nurses, and other vets. Where I was going, there SEEMS TO BE a non-caring attitude. My situation, I may be wrong, I believe the negative attitude towards me is because I am A VIETNAM COMBAT VETERAN. I have gone to civilian health care, to save my life, that IS happening now. My new doctors are treating me and trying to give me a longer life. The VA refused to do anything. A VA Doctor said to me QUOTE ” You are going to end up in some emergency room where you may die, if you live the VA may do something to help.” That’s a hell of a thing to say to a vet with 3 terminal diseases. I have a wife, a family, kids and grandkids that i love and they love me, I am a human being and the VA is NOT GOING TO ABUSE ME ANYMORE! Alex, silence is consent…

  2. Roger A. Maduro November 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm


    Good post. I just wrote an article making similar points (see link below). I think that one of the keys to the success of Blue Button is that it is open. As I elaborate in my article, that means others, including proprietary vendors, can adapt it and include it in their own solutions.

    Blue Button Initiative Takes Off, Contest Winner Announced


  3. Jim Brier November 8, 2011 at 6:05 am

    I think the Blue Button is great. I can check my future appointments, refill scripts,get lab results and wellness reminders.
    I healthcare I receive at the East Orange Healthcare System is as good as any private Dr.
    Quit ragging on the VAHCS.

    Corporal Jim Brier
    USMC 1976-1981

  4. Charles T. Cauthen November 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Alex, have you been brainwashed by the VA? Move forward to WHAT?
    I like your other blogs, where the truth is being told.

    • Alex Horton November 14, 2011 at 11:20 am

      Charles, I didn’t write this post!

  5. Vince October 29, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Sorry sir but you’re not going to fix the VA’s problems with a “blue button” or any kind of button. I work for the benefits administration and we have our own unique set of problems there but VHA (Veterans Health Administration) which includes all of the VA hospitals is such a total mess that no “blue button” could possibly fix their problems. The fact that so many people tried it out is a testament to the frustration of veterans who are at whits end and willing to try anything to improve the horrible care. There are some fairly good VA hospitals but they are still the exception rather than the rule. Read some of the horror stories posted online.

    • Alex Horton October 31, 2011 at 10:07 am

      Vince, how are any of your comments helpful or constructive? There’s a difference between “telling it like it is” and pure conjecture that needlessly turns Veterans away from seeking health care. Why are you a VA employee if you don’t want to move forward?

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