Blue Button' Apps Show How to Turn Health Data Downloads into Helpful Tools | Markle | Advancing America's Future
Blue Button' Apps Show How to Turn Health Data Downloads into Helpful Tools | Markle | Advancing America's Future

Blue Button’ Apps Show How to Turn Health Data Downloads into Helpful Tools

Publication Date: October 7, 2010 | Back to Latest News

SAN FRANCISCO—The Markle Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio today recognized a set of innovations that convert simple health data downloads into useful tools to help U.S. veterans improve their health.

The foundations sponsored the Blue Button Developer Challenge to stimulate innovation and encourage doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, insurers, and personal health information services to let their customers securely download their medical information at the click of a blue button.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs and Medicare have led the way by preparing to offer a blue button on their password-protected online portals to give veterans and beneficiaries the option of downloading copies of their medical or claims information.

“Downloading your information is only the first step to making use of it,” said Carol Diamond, MD, MPH, managing director at Markle. “The real winner of this challenge is the consumer because so many different approaches and ideas emerged to help patients put their information to good use.”

Adobe’s Blue Button Health Assistant received the top prize from a distinguished panel of judges: Craig Newmark, founder of; Steve Findlay, MPH, Senior Health Policy Analyst, Consumers Union; James Ralston, MD, MPH, Associate Investigator, Group Health Research Institute, and Steve Downs of RWJF.

The foundations and the judges recognized the other finalists: Microsoft, MedCommons, and RememberItNow!

“I was impressed that the challenge finalists took fairly unfriendly raw data and made it readable, usable, and easy to share in different ways,” said Steve Downs, assistant vice president, Health Group, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Within the very tight time frame of this contest, we are just scratching the surface of what is possible. I’m looking forward to tools that we haven’t even imagined.”

For the challenge, Markle and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation asked participants to develop a web-based tool that uses test blue button downloads from the VA or Medicare to help patients stay healthy and manage their care.

“This competition was a great reminder that we each should be actively engaged in our own health, and that there’s great potential in online tools to help us make sense of our information,” Newmark said. “As we have seen with other technology, a relatively simple step—like making your health information downloadable as the VA and Medicare are doing—can be revolutionary.”

Ralston, an internist and pioneer in using electronic personal health records (PHRs) to engage patients, said: “The contents of the blue button download provide a good foundation for tools that help patients share information with various providers. I was pleased to see many of the entries focus on communication of critical information between doctors and patients.”

Findlay, of Consumers Union, emphasized not only the criteria for usefulness and usability but also the privacy requirements of the challenge. “Many consumers want convenient, secure access to their personal health information and connections to their providers, but

only when their privacy and security is protected,” he said.

Broad industry and consumer advocate support for the blue button emerged from a Markle Connecting for Health public-private collaboration. Fifty organizations from this collaboration—representing technology companies, insurers, provider groups, and consumer and privacy advocates—recently supported a set of privacy practices for the blue button.

The privacy practices are part of the Markle Common Framework for Networked Personal Health Information, which recommends policy and technology safeguards to encourage individual access to information and privacy.

Adobe demonstrated an application and a security-enabled PDF document for patients to store their downloads and share them with providers. MedCommons demonstrated how veterans could create online packets of radiology images when they go for second opinions.

Microsoft showed how its online HealthVault platform could consume the VA data and allow it to be used in a variety of third-party applications that a patient might choose. RememberItNow focused on medication reminders for veterans.

Markle Connecting for Health is a public-private collaborative with representatives from more than one hundred organizations across the spectrum of health care and information technology specialists. Its purpose is to catalyze the widespread changes necessary to realize the full benefits of health information technology while protecting patient privacy and the security of personal health information. Markle Connecting for Health tackles the key challenges to creating a networked health information environment that enables secure and private information sharing when and where it is needed to improve health and health care. Learn more about Markle Connecting for Health at