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Monash Uni calls for carbon footprint measurements of digital healthcare

Monash University has partnered with an international group of researchers to call for the accurate measurement of the carbon footprint created by digital health interventions in order to create more environmentally sustainable healthcare. 

Monash states that the healthcare industry is the fifth largest contributor to planetary pollution and that adapting digital health technologies like telehealth, electronic health records, usage of artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things would help to reduce carbon emissions in the sector.

The Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association states that new research reviewed 3,299 studies and found that, across the world, there are no standard tools or methods of measuring the carbon footprint of digital health interventions. 

Furthermore, it found that current approaches to environmental impact assessment for digital health technologies are fragmented and tend to focus on a single component of the technology like energy consumption, rather than the overall impact – from design to implementation to disposal. 

Lead researcher, Zerina Tomkins, Associate Professor from Monash University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, said that governments, hospitals and healthcare practitioners are keen to reduce emissions contributed by the sector but need the right tools to implement sustainable change. 

She said, “The Covid pandemic has put significant pressure on the healthcare sector and forced urgent and ad-hoc adoption of digital health technologies across the world. This has led to changes in models of care and, while we can see that there was a reduction in carbon emission associated with travel time in the context of telehealth, the healthcare teams did not prospectively evaluate the overall environmental impact of digital health technologies used to deliver those services.

“To create long-term impact to reduce healthcare’s carbon emissions, there needs to be a transparent, standardised, and accessible way to evaluate environmental impacts over the full ‘life-cycle’ of the digital health intervention inclusive of digital health technologies at the systems level before their implementation in healthcare settings.”

The researchers said environmental impact assessments of digital health technologies need to consider the type of technologies used, the digital health intervention design plus, the manufacturing and disposal of the technology. They also needed to consider how the technology was being used, how it’s transforming clinical practice and patient outcomes in addition to its impact on the organisation.

Professor Chris Bain, Digital Health expert at Monash University’s Faculty of Information Technology, said that information and communication technologies also contribute to carbon emissions through the energy used for processing and data storage plus improper disposal of e-waste and issues such as environmental pollution caused by toxic e-waste chemicals.

He said, “Leaders and decision-makers in the healthcare industry need to have the right knowledge through standardised transparent validated tools and frameworks in multiple languages so that they can identify the right digital health technologies to bring about sustainable changes.”   

The researchers emphasised that to change carbon footprint assessment of digital health technologies, decision makers must implement an end-to-end systems-based environmental assessment. 

The research team’s future focus is to develop a framework and associated tools to encourage every level of the healthcare sector including governing bodies, leaders, organisations, healthcare workers and practitioners to design, develop and implement greener digital healthcare solutions.  

The study was led by Monash University in collaboration with researchers from the University of Melbourne, Flinders University, University of British Columbia and University of Regina in Canada, University of Turku in Finland and Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico. 

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