E-Health Records Produce Some Environmental Benefits

Digitized patient record and medical imaging systems consume more electricity, but reduce paper use, patient travel, reliance on plastics used in traditional X-ray films and other waste, said a Kaiser Permanente report.

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee, Senior Writer, InformationWeek

May 3, 2011

3 Min Read

Healthcare Innovators

Healthcare Innovators

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Enterprise wide use of e-health records has a neutral to slightly positive impact on the environment, according to a new report released by Kaiser Permanente, which recently studied the "environmental footprint" of its own KP HealthConnect electronic patient records and its KP HealthConnect picture archiving and communication systems.

The environmental study of KP HealthConnect, which contains records for 8.7 million patients and is used by thousands of clinicians in 454 KP medical offices and 36 hospitals in nine states and Wash. D.C., found that the digital records eliminated about 1,000 tons of paper records while KP's digital medical imaging saved about 68 tons of X-ray film.

In addition, gasoline consumption by patients was reduced by about 3 million gallons per year through individuals avoiding non-urgent medical office visits and instead using KP HealthConnect's services to securely message requests for prescription refills, ask clinicians questions, and conduct other virtual activities.

Patients securely messaged KP clinicians about 10 million times last year, eliminating the need for "many office visits," said Kathy Gerwig, KP VP workplace safety and environmental stewardship officer and co-author of the report titled, Use Of Electronic Health Records Can Improve Health Care Industry’s Environmental Footprint.

Still, the electricity used by KP to power thousands of PCs, monitors, servers, and other computing equipment related to KP HealthConnect created about 250 million tons of waste, according to the study.

However, as more energy efficient PCs and data center and other related technologies evolve, the impact of e-health records and digital imaging on the environment should continue to improve, according to Terhilda Garrido, VP for health information technology transformation and analytics at KP and co-author of the report.

KP currently uses Energy Star-certified PC equipment, however as power consumption continues to improve with advanced technologies, KP will move to those more energy efficient products, she said. "We're working closely with technology companies to identify those products and put them in place," she said in an interview.

What's also important for other healthcare providers to consider in their attempt to move to more environmentally friendly computing products is that the transition to health information technologies that replace paper and film should also go hand-in-hand with improved work habits and best practices, Gerwig said in an interview.

That includes limiting the amount of paper used to print out hard copies of digital records, to reminding patients to utilized secure Web portal and messaging to address non-emergency matters rather than traveling to medical offices for unnecessary and avoidable in-person visits.

"It's not automatic that all healthcare systems will reap environmental benefits by using technology," said Gerwig. "You need to use energy efficient PC technology, run data centers in energy efficient ways, and focus on care flow for patients to make good judgments" including whether they can utilize the Web or phone to communicate with clinicians instead of driving to a health facility, she said.

KP's pursuit of optimizing use of technology while becoming more environmentally friendly is also in line with the organization's mission to keep patients healthier in the larger picture, she said.

"Reducing environmental factors like carbon dioxide that threaten health helps reduce disease" and the risk of other medical problems among patients, she said.

About the Author(s)

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Senior Writer, InformationWeek

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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