How Blue Button Can Help Caregivers and Beat Alzheimer's

It's one of this century's most glaring paradoxes. You can do almost anything on your smart phone -- buy a book, find a taxi, manage your investment portfolio, watch a Yankees game while in Mogadishu -- but you can't get to your health records. The Internet, great disruptive force that it is, can't penetrate the wall between you and your own health information siloed away in your doctors' files.

Remember the days, decades ago, when email systems in different companies couldn't speak to each other? It seems like ancient history now, but it's exactly what is happening today with medical records. This world of isolated health data has put the medical world 30 years behind the connectivity that governs other aspects of our lives. In truth, it's even a bit further behind for some other doctors who, believe it or not, still use fax machines to communicate.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services are pioneering a program that seeks to fix this problem and bring medical record-keeping into the 21st century. They are making their "Blue Button" program, incubated in the Veterans Administration, available to you. Blue Button will allow you to "download your health data" through secure, remote electronic access to your computer or smart phone and to send it wherever you want -- to family members or caregivers, to your other doctors, even to researchers. Americans have long had the legal right to their health data, but heretofore it's been a logistical nightmare. Blue Button catapults the U.S.'s healthcare system into the digital age, enabling more people to take control of their own health -- and the health of their loved ones.

While there are many potential gains that can be made through the expansion of Blue Button, two stand out.

Supporting caregivers: According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, there are an estimated 65 million people in the U.S. who act as caregivers, whether for children, spouses, parents, or other loved ones. No matter the situation, all caregiving demands the juggling of prescriptions, appointments, and insurance. Add this complex juggling act on top of work schedules, assignments, and "normal" household management, the result can be overwhelming. One study estimates that the average caregiver spends 20 hours per week providing care. Many caregivers simply can't keep up. Appointments get missed. Prescriptions don't get filled. Work stress increases. Health suffers.

The digitization of health data through Blue Button will make this easier. With vital health data at one's fingertips, the messy, unruly upkeep of healthcare logistics will be contained in a smart phone or on a desktop. This will not only make life easier for the caregiver, but it will pave the way for a higher quality of life and better health results, for both the caregiver and the care recipient.

Developing Big Data: Big Data, to be sure, is one of the hottest topics in healthcare. As brilliantly discussed in this Foreign Affairs article, Big Data can enable a new approach to medicine and diagnostics. Instead of relying on causation -- as we have done for centuries -- Big Data lets medical researchers look for correlations. With the power to search through enormous pools of data, connections between two discrete phenomena may be discovered, even when we have no understanding of why or how there may be a linkage.

This runs counter to a centuries-long tradition, but it opens a vast alternative universe for understanding health and prevention. The examples of Big Data insights into tough problems outside of healthcare are growing, and it is only a matter of time until medical success stories emerge. Blue Button facilitates the "big datatization" of healthcare by enabling the compilation of millions and millions of health records. It is only the first step, but it is also a giant leap. With Alzheimer's, in particular, with its complicated mix of genomic drivers, the possibilities are inspiring.

There's a long-running joke that if you want to be the last to do something, join the health profession. The delay in digitizing medical records certainly adds credence to the punch-line, but the proliferation of Blue Button technology marks an exciting watershed moment in American and global healthcare. The immediate payoff for caregivers will be felt nationwide, and the prospects for new Big Data approaches to research and treatment may provide answers to medicine's most mysterious questions.