US health care services company Kaiser Permanente has released a report that concludes that the use of electronic health records (EHR) reduces carbon emissions, waste and water consumption. The study, published in the May issue of Health Affairs, estimates that electronic health records could lower carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 1.7 million tons across the US population.
The study is based on a model that evaluated the effects of EHR use on greenhouse gases, waste, toxic chemicals and water use within the Kaiser Permanente system, which serves more than 8.7 million members. The analysis found that the company’s use of health IT:
Avoided the annual use of 1,044 tons of paper for medical charts
Eliminated up to 92,000 tons of CO2 emissions by replacing face-to-face patient visits with virtual visits
Avoided 7,000 tons of CO2 emissions by filling prescriptions online
Reduced the use of toxic chemicals by 33.3 tons by digitising and archiving X-ray images and other scans
Resulted in a positive net effect on the environment despite increased energy use and additional waste from the use of personal computers
“There is a strong correlation between environmental health and the health of our communities. As health care providers, it is our responsibility to reduce our negative impact on the environment and ‘do no harm,’” said study co-author Kathy Gerwig, vice president for Workplace Safety and environmental stewardship officer at Kaiser Permanente. “The results of this study show that the health care sector is on the way to improving our environment through the broader adoption of electronic health records.”
This is one area where the UK’s National Health Service falls down. Patient records software was at the heart of the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) in the NHS, the multi-billion pound programme which is now in disarray, for various reasons that would take too long to detail here. It certainly won’t be completed in the form originally envisaged.
In the US the private health sector is subjected to the same pressures to be environmentally friendly as any other business. In the UK, the government sees the more immediate benefit from cost cutting, so the IT programme has been cut back. I doubt whether the environmental benefits have ever been a significant part of the NPfIT strategy.