EHRs can help the environment by reducing carbon emissions

A different way to look at electronic health records (EHRs) is to figure out how they can protect the environment. We can get a sample of that with a new study from Kaiser Permanante (KP) that is appearing in this month's Health Affairs.

KP, which reports it operates the world's largest private EHR system, says that EHRs could lower carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 1.7 million tons nationwide. So far, so good. As a New York Times blog reports, that's the equivalent of taking 300,000 cars off American roads.

But wait--there's more. According to the study findings: KP could avoid the use of 1,044 tons of paper in medical charts annually. It could eliminate up to 92,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions by replacing face-to-face patient visits--and associated travel--with virtual visits. It could avoid 7,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions though filling prescriptions online. And, it could reduce the use of toxic chemicals--such as silver nitrate and hydroquinone--by 33.3 tons through digitizing and archiving radiological images and scans.

But the key, as KP acknowledges, is getting everyone else (i.e., the plan's 8.7 million members) on board. For instance, the researchers found that if EHRs only just replaced paper records--without other behavioral changes--carbon monoxide emissions would only decrease by 653,000 tons. (That's the equivalent of putting 100,000 more cars on America's roads.)

That means, in a way, "teaching" patients how to use EHRs as well. This can include, for instance, using online services. KP notes that it already has 3 million users who can access lab results, send emails and schedule appointments.

As one of the study's co-authors, Terhilda Garrido, KP's vice president of Health Information Technology Transformation and Analytics says, the benefits of EHRs in the past were seen primarily through their impact on providing quality of care and improving efficiency.

And as the country increases its emphasis on "meaningful use" of health information technology, maybe "we should consider other macro impacts as well," she says.

This can involve working to protect the environment and going for the green: something the providers--and the patients--can all do. - Janice