ONC Health IT Awareness Plan Gets Blue Cross Nod

Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association's support for the Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT program includes making the public more aware of the value of health IT.

Top 9 Health IT Stories Of 2011
Top 9 Health IT Stories Of 2011
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The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), which licenses 39 Blues plans, has endorsed the campaign of the Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT (ONC) to increase consumer awareness of health IT and its value in preserving and enhancing health. In addition, two BCBSA members--Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and WellPoint, which includes 14 Blues plans--have announced their support for ONC's campaign, according to the association.

When ONC launched its consumer awareness push recently, it asked two categories of healthcare stakeholders to make different pledges. The agency requested "data holders"--including providers, hospitals, payers, and retail pharmacies--to make personal health information available to patients "in a secure, timely and usable manner" and to encourage patients to use that data to improve their own health.

ONC asked non-data-holders--including employers, consumer and disease-based organizations, health care associations, and product developers--"to engage and empower individuals to be partners in their health through information technology." Examples of actions that would satisfy the pledge include educational campaigns, social media campaigns, CEO messages to employees, and public discussions.

[ Legally, EHRs are double-edged swords: They protect clinicians from malpractice litigation but also put them at greater risk. See Will Your EHR Land You In Court? ]

BCBSA falls into the second category, while its members fit into the data-holder bin. Justine Handelman, the association's vice president of legislative and regulatory policy, told InformationWeek Healthcare, "We have long supported greater transparency as well as the use of data to help consumers improve their health. Most of our plans have some initiative to ensure that consumers and their caregivers have access to secure, timely information that can be meaningful."

For example, she pointed out, many Blues plans provide personal health records to their members. Populated mainly by claims data, these PHRs include information on the providers that patients saw, as well as their medications and diagnoses, she said.

As of March 2010, a BCBSA spokesperson said, 35 Blues plans, as well as the Blues' Federal Employee Program (FEP), were offering or planned to offer PHRs. The association had no information about what percentage of patients were using these records. Some Blues plans are evaluating the use of the government's Blue Button program to download PHR data, Handelman noted, but she could not say whether any of them have decided to do so.

Handelman cited several BCBSA initiatives in support of the ONC pledge--all of which predate the government campaign.

Last January, she noted, BCBSA launched an online tool to help consumers choose healthcare providers based on cost and quality. This National Consumer Comparison Tool lists costs for dozens of elective procedures, as well as diagnostic tests and office visit services at specified area hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers, and free-standing radiology centers. As of December, "more than a dozen" Blues plans, plus the FEP, were providing this tool for 102 treatment categories.

BCBSA also supplies information online about the best hospitals for hip, knee, spine, or bariatric procedures. Facilities that meet the "Blue distinction" criteria "often have better outcomes, better quality, and sometimes even lower costs," said Handelman.

She also cited BCBSA's recent healthcare reform proposal, "Building Tomorrow's Healthcare System," which, she said, advocates giving consumers the information they need to make better healthcare decisions. However, while the proposal does emphasize the need for providers to use information technology, its "healthy living" component hardly mentions the need for consumers to use online or mobile tools to maintain or improve their health.

Some association members are making strides in this area, Handelman pointed out. "Several plans help members track their blood pressure, their cholesterol, their BMI and chart it over time," she said. Moreover, BCBSA has a national exercise program, and some plans enable their members to track their daily activity online. Blues plans also provide members with online weight trackers, calorie counters, and even virtual health coaches, she added.

When are emerging technologies ready for clinical use? In the new issue of InformationWeek Healthcare, find out how three promising innovations--personalized medicine, clinical analytics, and natural language processing--show the trade-offs. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)

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