Electronic Records Can Reduce Carbon Footprint

Kathy Gerwig, vice president for workplace safety and the environmental stewardship officer at Kaiser Permanente, says it is incumbent upon healthcare providers to engage in healthful business practices.

Health information technology can "dramatically" reduce greenhouse emissions implicated by scientists as a primary cause of climate change, according to a new study.

The analysis, by Kaiser Permanente, found that electronic health records could reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the United States by 1.7 million tons. The journal Health Affairs published the study in its May issue, according to a news release.

Electronic records by themselves, however, aren't a panacea for remediating environmental degradation.

"Electronic health records can support a more environmentally sound health care sector if they are used to change workflows and care delivery, rather than just a substitute for paper records," says Dr. Jed Weissberg, senior vice president for hospitals, quality and care delivery experience at Kaiser Permanente.

In the case of Kaiser Permanente, which serves more than 8.7 million people, the use of health IT has:

  • Avoided the use of 1,044 tons of paper for medical charts annually.
  • Eliminated up to 92,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions by replacing face-to-face patient visits (and the associated travel) with virtual visits.
  • Avoided 7,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions by filling prescriptions online.
  • Reduced the use of toxic chemicals, such as silver nitrate and hydroquinone, by 33.3 tons by digitizing 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," says Gerwig, a co-author of the analysis. "As health care providers, it is our responsibility to reduce our negative impact on the environment and do no harm."