Are Electronic Medical Records a Way to the Triple-Bottom Line?

We look to hospitals for help when needed.  Yet those same institutions, according to Health Leaders Media emit more greenhouse gases than commercial buildings,  spend $5 billion a year for energy and produce about 4 billion pounds of trash annually.

graphic of smaple eectronic medical record
Source: Wikimedia

Certainly some healthcare organizations have made inroads in greening up their spaces.  Others are working toward reducing waste.

And soon, with an anticipated influx of stimulus dollars, another element–electronic medical record systems–could play a gigantic role in the industry’s move toward sustainability.

Electronic medical records

Imagine.  You give birth today.  Your child’s birth weight and length are entered into a computer, along with his blood type, any problems noted or medications prescribed and who knows what else.  A few weeks later, when you bring him to your pediatrician for a newborn visit, your doc sits at her desk, laptop open, clicks a mouse and the information the hospital entered into its computer is readily available.  A few years down the line, you and your happy family move—carrying with you a digitized version of your now school-age child’s medical history.

You find a lovely new town with a good school system and begin the search for a new pediatrician.  Your requirements?  He or she must use EMRs, take your health insurance and be a really good person as well as a skillful practitioner.

While the second two requirements might be hard to find, the use of EMRs is starting to get easier.  And they can make a difference.  EMRs can provide all your medical data in one place so that a heath care provider can see what’s gone on with you, what meds you take, what x-rays and blood work have been done.  Rather obvious how they could help improve patient care.

But, what do they have to do with sustainability?

The Three P’s

People, planet, profits–the triple bottom line–and mantra for those involved in sustainability.  And what better bottom line than an improvement in patient care, reduced environmental impact and an accounts receivable column with minimal write offs?

Enter electronic medical records.

Linda Stotsky used to work in a medical office.  She was the one that called in handwritten prescriptions to the pharmacy–before the doctor had checked for allergies or with the patient’s health care insurance formulary.

She was the one who then had to explain to the patient why the prescription caused a problem or why the insurance company didn’t pay–often playing many rounds of phone tag in the process.  And all the while, the accounts receivable for the office kept diminishing, severely affecting profit levels.

Stotsky is now president of LSC Physician Business Growth Services and says “All that is eliminated today, with access to an electronic record and practice management systems.” She  cites faster reimbursement of health insurance claims and automated access to formulary-acceptable prescriptions, and more, and adds, “We are improving patient outcomes … because the patient has better quality care because of the data, the sharing of data.”


Stotsky is not alone in understanding that patient care is better because of EMRs.  Researchers from the University of Virginia and MIT’s Sloan School of Business found that the use of EMRs reduced infant mortality.  Another study found a 20% average reduction in hospital-wide mortality once a computerized program for prescription entry was implemented.  Dr. Michelle Greiver has found a reduction in paper use, a decrease in the amount of times patients wait for a an appointment, and in general, more efficiency.


Perhaps as much as 80 percent or so of a hospital’s waste production ends up in a landfill, according to Microsoft  – which also provides technical and software solutions related to EMRs. Kevin Pho, M.D.,  explains how paper is used in settings without EMR.  Think about how much less paper would be needed with EMRs, how much less would be sent to landfills?  The Swedish Medical Center in Seattle  had digitized three million pages of patient documentation by the end of 2008.  Think how much less paper they use now.


Early proponents of EMRs claimed they would also save money and thus help the bottom line.  Thus far, that is not the case according to studies done by researchers at both Harvard University and the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.  But, in five years, when healthcare organizations will be penalized if they have no “meaningful use” of EMRs and start getting fined, perhaps the cost-savings will come.


No, not yet.  EMRs are clunky and often not suited to the health care providers work flow.  There are many types and vendors of EMRs and they’re not all compatible.  And, they cost a lot.

But, perhaps these are growing pains as Naomi Freundlich, a patient advocate at the Century Foundation, suggests.

Right now, EMRs save lives and aren’t people the first P in the triple-bottom line?

Jennifer Hicks is a freelance journalist and the lead editor of SmartBrief on Sustainability, a free daily e-newsletter that offers a round up of the day's most important news for businesses and consumers interested in sustainability issues. Her work has appeared on several health, business and political Web sites.

6 responses

  1. Jennifer, I like your positive insight on EMR’s and share your concern to cut down paper. The health-care industry is way behind when it comes to technology and with programs such as Practice Fusion, small-practice physicians with limited funds can advance their practices while saving money and paper. The statistic stating that 80% of paper used by hospitals ends up in landfills, is a clear sign that it’s time for a change!

  2. I think the concept of emrs is one that should have gained traction eons ago. However keep in mind that there is a standards aspect to this as well, data corruption issues, regulatory implications and of course, legal implications should medical decisions be made based upon incorrect information contained inside the files. There have been instances of files mysteriously merging between two different patient files, decimal values being moved around and no uniform standards means that moving around the country or the world could become cumbersome. Additionally should your file be hacked and resold to an insurance company or posted to the web there is no recourse, whereas with a paper file it needs to be scanned first. Don’t get me wrong, i still think that emrs are the future but right now nobody can seem to agree on how to unify, protect and universally deploy an acceptable format. Just my 3 cents.

  3. “Perhaps as much as 80 percent or so of a hospital’s waste production ends up in a landfill, according to Microsoft – which also provides technical and software solutions related to EMRs. Kevin Pho, M.D., explains how paper is used in settings without EMR. Think about how much less paper would be needed with EMRs, how much less would be sent to landfills? The Swedish Medical Center in Seattle had digitized three million pages of patient documentation by the end of 2008. Think how much less paper they use now.”

    I never thought about paper waste as a reason to switch over to electronic medical software and billing, etc. I understood that paper filing was hard to store because it took up so much space, was prone to human error, and could be hard to organize and find what you needed; but the amount of waste is another reason entirely. I know it is hard for offices to switch over to a system like this, but it is something they all need to do in the near future.

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