A relatively undiscussed part of healthcare reform is the government’s requirement that health providers give patients access to their patient records.

Health providers are required to communicate electronically with at least 5 percent of their patients during 2014 or risk losing EHR (electronic health records) incentive money from the federal government.

But according to Karen DeSalvo, the national coordinator of health IT under the Department of Health and Human Services, only 30 percent of patients have been given access to the so-called “Blue Button” at their provider’s website, where they can log in and access their patient records. DeSalvo, in her first speech as national coordinator, spoke at the Consumer Health IT Summit in the District of Columbia.

In addition, patients aren’t using the online records, either: DeSalvo said only half of the patients with access have taken advantage of it.

“We want to encourage people, when the information is there, to keep using it so that demand doesn’t go down,” DeSalvo said.

The App Association‘s Executive Director Morgan Reed, who attended the event this morning, gave a compelling example of why patients need access to their records: Five years before a man died of cancer, he visited the ER for chest pains. The ER doc examined the man and noted a “small mass” near his patient’s heart. But the busy doctor treated the man only for chest pains and sent him on his way.

Had this patient been able to access the doctor’s notes in his chart, he would have made sure to visit another doctor to have the mass checked out. It could have saved his life.

Another survey says that of the people who have access their personal health record online, 88 percent said they found the information to be very useful.

“It proves that consumers have an enormous hunger for better user interfaces to interact with care providers,” Reed says.

There’s also a macroeconomic aspect: In the U.S., more than 200,000 Americans die from preventable medical errors each year, and the cost to the healthcare system exceeds $17 billion. Patients can prevent many medical errors by taking responsibility for his or her own care.

DeSalvo’s office will soon be launching a new campaign to help consumers access their patient records. Toward this end, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology announced a new “Blue Button toolkit” to educate consumers.