Health Care's Strain on Environment Could Be Less

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A new study suggests health IT systems can help reduce negative impacts on the environment. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Norbert Kaiser

A Kaiser Permanente study into the use of health information technology concludes that electronic health records could lower carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 1.7 million tons if used across the whole U.S. population.

Health care-related activities contribute as much as 8 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but the study suggests this can be curtailed with greater adoption of technology within the healthcare system.

READ: Health Care Reform’s Eco Impact

The study also went in depth on Kaiser Permanente’s existing health IT systems. It found that the health insurance company saved 1,044 tons of paper for medical charts; reduced toxic chemicals by 33.3 tons from X-ray machines by digitizing and archiving scans; and saved up to 92,000 tons of CO2 emissions by replacing face-to-face patient visits with virtual ones.

In 2004, President Bush signed an executive order to establish this kind of technology in hospitals, not only for the environmental benefits, but also for the improved efficiency and economic value. A RAND Health study found that widespread adoption of health information technology could save the U.S. healthcare system $81 billion annually.

But until recently, adoption numbers have been low.

Last year, the top five medical groups, including Kaiser Permanente, banded together to create a patient information exchange consisting entirely of electronic health records.

Obama administration incentives, up to $44,000 per physician, may have helped spur the endeavor, but health information technology has a long way to go before all of the potential benefits are seen.

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