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Technology / TECHNOLOGY

Health IT Could Doctor the Environment, Too?

photo of Maggie Fox
May 4, 2011

Using health information technology not only can prevent mistakes—it can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, researchers reported on Wednesday.

Comprehensive use of electronic medical records, digital prescriptions, and other health information technology by Kaiser Permanente saved 1,044 tons of paper that would have been used for medical charts in a year, found Terhilda Garrido, its health IT vice president, and colleagues.

The Obama administration is strongly encouraging the use of health information technology. President Obama signed the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, or HITECH Act, in 2009. It offers $14 billion to $27 billion in incentives to hospitals and doctors’ offices if they start using electronic health records.

 

Last month, national coordinator for health information technology Farzad Mostashari said the new federal center set up to launch this effort has certified more than 600 new health information technology products.

The Kaiser Permanente team found that replacing face-to-face patient visits  with virtual visits eliminated as much as 92,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, while filling prescriptions online saved  the release of 7,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

Digitizing X-rays and other scans saved more than 33 tons of toxic chemicals such as silver nitrate and hydroquinone, the team reported in the journal Health Affairs.

The benefits outweighed the increased energy use and additional waste from the use of personal computers, the team said.

The projected benefits if the whole country adopted electronic health records? As much as 1.7 million tons, it found.

Kaiser Permanente has 8.7 million members in nine states and the District of Columbia.

“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,” said Jed Weissberg, senior vice president at Kaiser Permanente.

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