California Veterans Granted Access to Health Records

Government officials at last week’s Health 2.0 conference in San Francisco were exuberant when unveiling their plan to release millions of individual electronic medical records to veterans.

They call it the “Blue Button,” and the idea is, by pressing a single button on the Internet, veterans can download their own health information and store it on a thumb drive, so that any health care provider can access a complete health record instantly.

“The U.S. government is sitting on tens of billions of dollars worth of data — it is a tsunami of information,” said Todd Park, chief technology officer at HHS. “The idea is to unleash that data, for free.”

The first direct beneficiaries of all of that health information are U.S. veterans themselves, according to Peter Levin, chief technology officer for Veterans Affairs.

“The largest and most obvious impact in California is, you have the most veterans in the country here,” Levin said. “The biggest impact that Blue Button will have is better service to an enormous constituency in this state.”

The second benefit of having that information available is that it allows companies to create different ways to use that data, such as an application that shows blood pressure changes over time. It’s a little bit like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association releasing weather data, Park said, and entrepreneurs using that data to make the Weather Channel or weather-dot-com.

To help entrepreneurs launch applications and design useful programs to better utilize data, organizers of Blue Button have helped promote a consortium of 50 companies to help bring ideas to market.

“For me, the really exciting part is to see the ecosystem develop,” Levin said. “We need to establish a framework for these innovations, and that’s what this 50-company consortium is doing.”

Stanford professor Per Enge, whose tech credentials include designing GPS systems, said he was impressed with the possible applications.

“I think it’s going to be beautiful,” Enge said. “I’m not a veteran, but even I am very keen for my public health records to be at hand. I think it’s going to be one of the earmarks of the baby boomers. We’re going to want that data and use that data, and it’s going to have a really good effect.”

Veterans Affairs may be the first federal agency to release this kind of information, Enge said, but it won’t be the last.

“This is just the start,” Enge said.

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