Electronic Health Records: The Green Future of Medicine?
According to a study released by Kaiser Permanente, the use of electronic health records (EHRs) could actually be beneficial to the planet as well as the patients. Through the 2009 the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act sprouted the Medicare and Medicaid EHR financial incentive program for meaningful use of health information technology. The main objective of meaningful use was to improve the quality and accuracy of health care and streamline the doctors’ work-flow, but an added bonus is that the implementation and use of EHRs reduce the size of the health care industry’s carbon footprint.
The study claims that health care contributes 8 percent of all greenhouse gasses and 7 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. They state that the use of EHRs greatly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Okay, a doctor using a tablet PC in the office does not literally cut down on carbon emissions, but rather it reduces the need for in-office patient visits. EHRs allow the patient to communicate with their doctor online via email, chat or video “virtual visits”. This greatly reduces the need to make a trip in to see the doctor in person. Things like questions about medication and discussing test results and scans can be done from the computer. This reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 1.7 million tons per year, which would be that of 300,000 cars less on the roads. Online communication is for the patients’ benefit as well as environmental, as it allows doctors to have easy access to the patient’s full medical history so the patient receives the highest quality of treatment possible. Doctors can also attend to more people throughout the day, which results in happier patients.
As well as reducing carbon emissions from face-to-face doctor visits, getting rid of paper medical records would cut back on the 1,044 tons of paper used to make records each year. X-rays can now be digitally printed and viewed instead of on film, saving the use of toxic and polluting chemicals like silver nitrate and hydroquinone that are used to make and develop the film. One could argue that the use of energy to power all the new computer equipment that make up an EHR system may produce more pollution than the old paper method. The study says that an extra 653,000 tons of waste was generated from computer use – but that’s only about little more than a third of what’s being reduced. It’s hard to say whether or not environment impact was a factored in goal of meaningful use EHR implementation, but according to Kaiser, it’s a positive side-effect.