How digital technology can contribute to a more eco-friendly healthcare system ?

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How digital technology can contribute to a more eco-friendly healthcare system

In the face of climate change, digital technology has often been highlighted as a means to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Despite being an energy consumer, digital technology can offer solutions for a more eco-friendly healthcare system. Let's explore this.

Last May, the government unveiled its roadmap, 'Ecological Planning for the Healthcare System,' acknowledging the significant impact of the healthcare sector on the national carbon footprint. The sector contributes to over 8% of national greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to nearly 50 million tons of CO2 (1).

The roadmap emphasizes various action areas for the sector's ecological transformation, including building renovations, sustainable procurement, eco-responsible care, waste management, and transportation, among others.

To mitigate the environmental impact of the healthcare sector, digital technology, despite being an energy consumer, can provide solutions. However, as noted in a previous analysis, digital technology in the healthcare sector is increasingly polluting each year (+6% annually) and currently accounts for 2% of France's total energy consumption (2).

Beyond this observation, digital technology can support all healthcare stakeholders in being more environmentally responsible. Overview of the solutions provided by digital health.

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Telehealth to Reduce Travel

Telehealth, including teleconsultation, telemonitoring, and telecare, emerges as a natural response to environmental challenges. Remote consultations reduce travel, consequently decreasing the carbon footprint associated with it. 

By reducing in-person visits to healthcare facilities or medical offices, there is also a reduction in energy consumption (lighting, heating, air conditioning).

Teleconsultation, according to a study from the University of Oxford published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, could become an essential element for sustainable ecology by reducing carbon footprint (3).

"Our health systems urgently need to become more environmentally sustainable. Our review clearly shows that virtual consultations offer a way to help with this. While the adoption and diffusion of virtual consultation need to be considered alongside a range of system, organizational, clinical, and patient-related factors, when done well and at scale, they offer significant potential carbon savings, primarily (but not only) through travel reductions," indicates Professor Shaw from the University of Oxford in a press release. (3).

Telemonitoring and home patient care also reduce the need for regular visits to the hospital or doctor, thus decreasing the carbon footprint associated with travel and medical infrastructure.

Paperless Policies

An increasing number of healthcare companies, medical facilities, and pharmacies are adopting paperless strategies. This digital transformation aims to eliminate paper usage in business processes, favoring document digitization and electronic document management (4).

The progressive digitalization of exchanges between practitioners or healthcare facilities helps reduce paper consumption and physical storage space, contributing to tree preservation and waste reduction.

Various solutions facilitate paper reduction :

  • Secure messaging system MSSanté, which is a trusted space where authorized professionals can exchange health data securely via email, whether in urban settings, hospitals, or healthcare structures (5).
  • Computerized Patient Record (DPI) designed to store all documents related to the patient's healthcare journey within an institution.
  • Digital prescription, which digitizes the prescription process between prescribers and prescribed healthcare professionals (pharmacists, etc.) to enhance care coordination.
  • Exchange and interoperability solutions such as Lifen.
  • Practice management software for digitizing patient records.
  • Electronic signature

Resource and Medical Waste Optimization in Healthcare Facilities

With an annual production of 700,000 tons of various waste types, representing 3.5% of the national production, healthcare facilities seek to streamline waste management. Digital solutions can help healthcare institutions optimize resources, reducing material and energy waste.

Digital solutions can assist healthcare facilities in optimizing their resources, thereby reducing waste of materials and energy. AI-based solutions facilitate:

  • Automation of administrative tasks
  • Deployment of predictive models for bed management, optimizing the institution's energy management
  • Implementation of automated dispensing systems by the hospital pharmacy to minimize waste

Digital tracking systems help in efficiently monitoring and managing medical waste, thereby reducing environmental risks associated with improper waste disposal. For example, the Trinov solution allows easy tracking of flows from the care unit to their final destination.

Towards a Green Pharmaceutical Industry?

Last July, the LEEM unveiled the commitments of the pharmaceutical sector to contribute to the ecological transition in France: a decarbonization plan and a 3R roadmap (Reduction, Reuse, Recycling) in line with national objectives to phase out single-use plastic by 2040 (6).

The digital transformation of production sites, including automation and control of production lines, predictive maintenance, optimization of inventory management, and quality control processes, significantly contributes to reducing the environmental impact of the pharmaceutical industry.

Another impact is seen with digital events and hybrid-format conferences, which have significantly reduced the travel and invitations of doctors, traditionally involving long and energy-intensive journeys. Additionally, there is a shift in advertising investments towards digital formats, such as display campaigns and sponsored articles, replacing traditional press insertions and advertorials, for example.

In addition to these changes, digital transformation processes aim to reduce paper usage, implement email limitation policies to decrease energy consumption, and fulfill other Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) commitments.

Carbon footprint as a market access criterion?

The environmental impact criterion of digital solutions deployed in the healthcare world is increasingly present as a requirement for market access or inclusion among healthcare stakeholders.

As part of its roadmap for the ecological transition of the healthcare system, the Ministry of Health and Prevention, in collaboration with the Digital Health Agency, has developed the EcoScore, an index of environmental sobriety.

It is calculated based on measurements (energy, performance, data) taken during the use of a digital service. In addition to the EcoScore, the service provides usual environmental indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions, in eq. CO2, resource consumption, or water consumption. The results generated help identify action plans to reduce the digital service's environmental footprint (7).

This EcoScore is notably used in the evaluation of digital health services seeking to integrate the service catalog of My Health Space. This demonstrates the importance of the criterion.

Certainly, digital technology consumes energy, but its impact in the healthcare sector contributes to sustainable development and makes healthcare stakeholders more eco-responsible. Obviously, digital is not the sole solution but complements all other actions taken around the ecological planning of the healthcare system.

The Perspective of Digital Pharma Lab

First, the use of digital technology mainly pollutes through the electricity it consumes. If, as in France, electricity production is largely decarbonized (nuclear, hydro, wind and solar power), digital technology becomes a highly attractive vector for reducing emissions in the healthcare sector. France therefore has a considerable advantage if decarbonized electrification continues. This is one of the main reasons why Denmark's Novo Nordisk has chosen to set up new pharmaceutical production lines for the whole world in France: its decarbonized electricity, for an investment of over 2.5 billion euros. The industrialist is one of the pioneers of decarbonation, with a net-zero objective before 2030 and zero-carbon shortly thereafter.

French hospitals are also increasingly focused on the subject. Staff have become awareness of the issue, and action by the public authorities is bearing fruit: in particular, legislation - for hospital purchasing, or single-use of certain devices - is evolving to, for example, introduce much more precise and mandatory clauses in this respect for public procurement.

It's a transformation in the making, and both manufacturers and care providers are well on board. France has decarbonised electricity and a rich ecosystem of digital health start-ups. We have everything we need to be at the forefront of this ecological, economic and digital race!

  1. (1) Roadmap "Ecological Planning of the Healthcare System" - May 2023
  2. (2) Senate, Information Report - Information Mission on the Environmental Footprint of Digital Technology, June 2020
  3. (3) Virtual consulting can significantly cut carbon footprint in health care, new study suggests - JMIR PUBLICATIONS – May 2023
  4. (4) Paperless in business: a winning strategy? - Société Générale d’Archives – June 2023
  5. (5) MSSanté – Digital Health Agency
  6. (6) Ecological transition: the pharmaceutical sector commits to a decarbonization path and the phasing out of single-use plastic packaging – LEEM – July 2023
  7. (7) Calculation of the ecoscore for digital health services - Digital Health Agency

Rémy Teston

Digital Consultant / E-Health Expert – Buzz E-santé