Agencies' health IT success becomes model for nation

Tuesday - 9/13/2011, 7:23pm EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Emily Kopp
Reporter
Federal News Radio

The Department of Health and Human Services wants more people to access their own medical records online. It announced Monday at an agency-hosted healthcare IT summit several initiatives aimed at making it easier for patients to download their own data.

When patients cannot easily access their own data, problems ranging from inconvenience to medical errors can result, said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

"At best it's a waste of time and money. At worst, it threatens people's health and lives," she said. Sebelius said older Americans, for example, see an average of 14 doctors a year. "Their health depends on whether those doctors can communicate with one another."

HHS announced several new initiatives:

  • A proposed rule specifies that patients can ask for their laboratory results to be sent directly to them
  • A draft uniform health record privacy notice
  • A challenge to create technology by the end of the year that will ensure safe transitions from the hospital to the home.

In addition, President Barack Obama declared this week "National Health Information Technology Week."

HHS is already using two incentives. The agency is offering payments to providers to help them pay for electronic health record technology. Sebelius said most of the targeted small health clinics in rural areas had signed on to work with HHS' new regional extension centers, who offer tailored advice on implementing electronic health records, similar to the Department of Agriculture's extension agents for farmers.

In encouraging private health insurers and health care providers to make patients' information more accessible, the agency is asking the public to follow the lead of the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

All three agencies already let patients download their medical data using a "blue button" function. Together they have 400,000 authenticated users.

"The blue button isn't just valuable, it's magic," said CMS Administrator Don Berwick. "It's the 'open sesame' button to a new system of care. It marks and accelerates a needed change in culture that will bring us to a whole new level of performance in a healthcare system we deeply care about."

The VA developed the blue button technology last year after a brainstorm session with several private foundations.

VA chief technology officer Peter Levin said the blue button technology had been so successful in its first 13 months that the agency was rebuilding its IT infrastructure to handle more users and more features.

"We're putting it on scalable infrastructure in the cloud, bolstering security, making sure we have all the enterprise regimen that you have to have. It doesn't sound very glamorous but it's hugely important for the growth of the program," he said.

Levin said VA will make medical imaging, physician notes and immunization data electronic soon. "We've got a buffet of data we want to put into the blue button," he said. "Every three or four months, you're going to see more data chapters added to the blue button that the VA already provides."

At the summit, several major health insurers, including Aetna, Kaiser Permanente and United Health Group, pledged to adopt the blue button technology.

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