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Major Pharmacies Support Blue Button Initiative

February 7, 2014
by Gabriel Perna
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Will work towards Blue Button+ standards

Several of the nation’s largest retail pharmacy chains, including Walgreens, CVS Caremark, Kroger, Safeway, and Rite Aid, have pledged support to the Blue Button movement, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced this week.

“Pharmacies are important pieces of the healthcare ecosystem. For millions of patients, it’s one of their touch points with healthcare. Being able to access information about which medications you are on is incredibly important to making better decisions. We’re excited to see these large pharmacies chains and associations step it up,” says Nick Sinai, U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer at OSTP, which has joined with ONC in advancing the Blue Button initiative, in an exclusive interview with Healthcare Informatics.

The pharmacy chains are aiming to standardize patient prescription information. They’re working towards the goal of adopting Blue Button+ standards, which assists healthcare organizations in structuring their data in standardized machine-readable formats.

This format makes the data transmittable to the rest of the healthcare ecosystem, which Sinai notes ties into certain measures of Stage 2 of meaningful use. The standards will also allow the pharmacies to adopt private-sector applications and services that can add value to this basic health information.

They were joined in the announcement by three national pharmacy associations—National Association of Chain Drug Stores, Pharmacy Health IT Collaborative, and National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations—which will promote adoption and use of Blue Button.

The Blue Button is a public-private partnership between the healthcare industry and the Federal Government that aims to empower all Americans with access to their own electronic health information. ONC has run challenges in the past asking developers to create apps that implement and use Blue Button functionality.

The pharmacies are already at varying levels of adoption with Blue Button-branded portals. Walgreens already provides its customers with the ability to view and download their prescription history. The company will adopt Blue Button+, making way for patients to share their data and manage it with third-party apps.

Walgreens is also partnering with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), which launched the Blue Button program in 2010 and has had success with it, to give veterans online access to more health data, including immunization records.  

Kroger, which provides approximately half of its customers with access to their own pharmacy records through an online portal, will be extending that service across all stores. CVS Caremark and Rite Aid not only committed towards moving to the machine-readable format, but also affirmed their current patient access offerings, which allow patients to view medication lists and prescription history. Safeway is just starting down this path, and will aim to allow customers to securely access and share their own electronic pharmacy records.

Sinai lauded the recent decision by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which gives patients or their “personal representative," access to the patient’s completed test reports on the patient’s or patient’s personal representative’s request. He says the amendment, when built on the availability of tools like the Blue Button, will increase patients access to their own laboratory results.

“It’s consistent with the administration’s commitment to empower patients with their own data so they can make better decisions,” Sinai says. “It gives patients the critical information they need so they can spot errors, make better decisions, it’s really exciting.”  He adds that one major laboratory has already committed to providing lab information through Blue Button.

In 2014, Sinai says the government will continue to sponsor Blue Button-related challenges and events, which aim to improve the overall ecosystem.  “I think it’s reaching a tipping point. It started in 2010 as an initiative with the VA. Based on today’s news, now we’re talking about more than 150 million Americans that have access to their healthcare information, whether through payer, provider, pharmacy, or lab. 2014 is really this tipping point,” he says.

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