ONC delays launch of Blue Button Connector until late February

By Neil Versel
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Blue Button ConnectorThe US Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) for Health IT is slowing its rollout launch of a website meant to encourage patients to take a more active role in their own care.

ONC will wait until verifying that all the data on Blue Button Connector, a planned hub for consumers to find sources of health data to download as well as Blue Button Plus technology to facilitate it, is accurate, according to Lygeia Ricciardi, director of ONC's Office of Consumer eHealth. "I want people on this site," and she wants the information to be trusted, Ricciardi told MobiHealthNews after speaking at the Digital Health Summit at International CES in Las Vegas last week.

Ricciardi had said in September that ONC was targeting mid-January for launching the Blue Button Connector. As of Monday, ONC's Blue Button site said the connector was "coming soon." Expect a beta version to go live in time for the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference in late February, Ricciardi said.

The federal agency also is holding off on releasing a series of public-service announcements until there is enough heft behind the Blue Button name to make it worthwhile for people to visit the Connector site. "It's really a symbol and a brand that can enhance your brand," Ricciardi said during a short presentation aimed at getting healthcare organizations and technology vendors interested in the concept. She said she would like to see Blue Button take on the kind of cachet as the EnergyStar, USDA Organic or, in the private sector, Intel Inside logos.

At least three other factors are behind the delay. Though Blue Button Connector will not have a new URL, the White House has imposed a moratorium on new federal websites until the Obama administration gets healthcare.gov working properly and, according to Ricciardi, is trying to review and streamline the stable of .gov URLs.

The Dec. 31 departure of Leon Rodriguez as director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights to take over as head of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services may also be behind the delay. OCR, which is in charge of enforcing HIPAA privacy and security regulations, has been trying to spread the word about patients having the right to access their own health data. 

Plus, the announcement four months ago came just two weeks before the federal government shut down, leaving Ricciardi and most of her ONC colleagues locked out of their workplace for the first half of October.

At CES, Ricciardi promised an announcement in the near future that more than one major retail pharmacy chain would make data available to customers via Blue Button. Ricciardi also said that pharmaceutical manufacturers Pfizer, Novartis and Eli Lilly & Co. have asked ONC to help them provide Blue Button access to patients enrolled in clinical trials.

To date, Ricciardi added, 17 publicly available apps now use structured Blue Button Plus data. "We ultimately want people to be using structured data," she said. In September, another ONC official said to expect at least a dozen apps on Blue Button Connector when the site goes live.

Several app vendors, including ONC award winner Humetrix and longstanding healthcare mobile app developer Epocrates, echoed Ricciardi's sentiments about Blue Button Plus in their own presentations at the Digital Health Summit.

"Blue Button is to health data what DOS is to PCs," said Abbe Don, VP for user experience at Epocrates, a San Mateo, Calif.-based subsidiary of EHR service provider athenahealth. The major difference, according to Don, is that Blue Button is in the public domain and open-source, having been created at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Don also demonstrated how standard, unstructured Blue Button data does look like a DOS display, in that is plain text. Blue Button Plus adds a graphical user interface and other formatting to make data more relevant, she said.

"You need clinical relevance and great design and a great [user] experience," Don said.