#greenhealthcare part 4: Health Information Technology helps health care be green

This is part 4 in a series on health care and climate change, or “Prevention is the new health information technology,” based on my learning prior to ACPM2012. You can see all the posts here.

A goal of health information technology may be prevention, however, health information technology can support prevention by making health care more green. A very useful paper: Turley M, Porter C, Garrido T, et al. Use of electronic health records can improve the health care industry’s environmental footprint. Health affairs (Project Hope). 2011;30(5):938-46. was published in HealthAffairs last year which examines the ability of health IT to replace paper (in charts), water and toxic chemicals (in imaging), reduce energy use (transportation to office visits) and reduce waste (imaging plastics). In a comprehensive way, it also included energy use increases from computers, and waste increases from plastics used in personal computers.

And…the news is good, with a huge caveat. The carbon sequestration savings estimated nationally at 1.7 Megatons of CO2, or the amount of CO2 sequestered by 362,473 acres of pine or fir forests.

The caveat is that health information technology must reduce transportation of people to and from health care. If it does not, then the carbon savings becomes a carbon spend..

Therefore health information technology by itself is not enough. Leadership is required too. This is one of many areas where the conversation about climate change and health is a lot like the conversation about patient empowerment, and in this case, it’s about patient access to online records. The slides below the carbon saving calculation show what Kaiser Permanente has done. There are now 3.8 million members (59% of the eligible population) using kp.org, with steady use – almost 11 million messages sent by members from January – October, 2011. The slide below it puts it in focus around the experience – new medical offices are built:

  • Without medical records rooms
  • Without X-ray processing or file rooms
  • With smaller foot prints, and more importantly,
  • Less parking lots, the most toxic structure you can build
Ted Eytan, MD