Strategies to improve “operational efficiency” in healthcare organizations are a recurring theme here on HealthBlog. That’s why I wanted to share a new article on Green IT written by my colleague Chris Sullivan who manages our US health provider industry for Microsoft. I know that Chris and his team would be very pleased to work with you directly or point you to additional resources in your quest to drive greater efficiency in your organization—a mission, in these challenging economic times, that has never been more important.
Bill Crounse, MD Senior Director, Worldwide Health Microsoft
Going Green in IT
By Chris Sullivan
(first published in ADVANCE for Health Information Executives)
It can also make great business sense as the recession forces many industries to change the way they go about their business practices. Companies everywhere are looking to implement more efficient practices and reduce overall IT costs, and health care is no exception.
Contrary to a common misconception, health care organizations are not recession-proof. Many of our nation's largest hospitals and providers are not-for-profit and heavily rely upon donations and investments as their primary source of income. And with these funding sources drying up, health care providers are struggling to lower costs, reduce energy consumption and consolidate infrastructure. CIOs today have far less to spend on new IT investments; at the same time, they're tasked with using IT to significantly reduce overhead and operating costs.
In addition, the recently passed economic stimulus plan emphasizes the need for businesses to adopt green technology. Health care providers, in particular, have an enormous opportunity to pursue this goal by doing more with the technology in which they've already invested.
Many IT solutions that are helping health care organizations achieve these ends also provide significant environmental benefits, such as driving reductions in energy consumption, reducing travel and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. In short, being "lean and green" is good for both business and the environment.
It's not easy speaking green
It's important to note that there's no formal definition of green IT. It really boils down to using technology to reduce costs and overhead expenses, lessen the amount of waste produced, and mitigate the negative impacts of modern services, industry and manufacturing on the environment.
We lack clear metrics by which to measure both the environmental impact of IT and the results of moving to a greener strategy. There are, however, emerging frameworks that can be useful, including the U.S. Energy Star system and the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, to name just two.
But, ultimately, green IT has to save dollars and help make IT sustainable. Health care organizations are taking advantage of the enormous opportunity to cut costs and reduce energy consumption, reduce employee travel and consolidate infrastructure to increase energy efficiency.
How can your organization ensure it's taking the right steps to meet its business and compliance needs as well as the needs of the environment?
The answer lies in implementing technology - including software, server and desktop virtualization and remote-access solutions - and best practices that enable the most efficient use of infrastructure, boost employee productivity and, at the same time, cut capital expenses and reduce the impact on the environment.
Big (Green) Brother
Aside from health organizations' need to lower costs and streamline business processes, they face additional pressure from the government, legislators and company shareholders to ensure that environmental responsibility is a guiding principle in corporate practices. To help meet these dual demands, software is playing an increasingly important role in reducing energy consumption and operating costs - and in cutting down the associated environmental impacts.
Software can be a critical tool for health care organizations in meeting these environmental challenges. Current software solutions can reduce energy use through power management, analyze operational or environmental footprints and their impact, and facilitate increased productivity through remote access, virtual meetings and paperless offices.
In this way, software is foundational to solving today's environmental challenges and enabling long-term sustainability. It's increasingly important to find new ways to reduce energy consumed by technology, rethink business practices and research new solutions.
For many IT departments, the biggest obstacle in improving the efficiency of their IT operations is the data center. In fact, it's estimated that just one medium-sized server has roughly the same annual carbon footprint as an SUV that gets 15 miles to the gallon.
Server virtualization is one of the most common ways health care organizations are going green. By virtualizing servers in their data centers, organizations lower the actual number of physical servers used, which not only reduces physical hardware costs but can also decrease the footprint of a data center.
A smaller footprint results in lower energy costs for infrastructure. In addition, there's not as much equipment to heat in the cooler months, or to cool when the mercury rises. With fewer physical servers, personnel costs can also be reduced, since fewer servers require fewer administrators, as well as less maintenance and upkeep.
According to industry researcher The 451 Group's recent report titled "Eco-Efficient IT," each server eliminated through virtualization can reduce power consumption in a data center by 200 to 400 watts. This is the equivalent of about $380 per year, per server, factoring in the energy costs of air conditioning to cool the unit. The report uses the example of a data center with 1,000 servers, which would represent an annual savings of more than $125,000.
Besides energy and cost savings, virtualization can streamline data center management and ease the burden on already strained IT departments. Virtualization can also ensure the security of your confidential data through a virtualized, mirrored backup and disaster recovery strategy.
One example is Houston-based KSF Orthopaedic, a health care provider that used server virtualization to lower costs, consolidate physical assets and implement a disaster recovery strategy.
KSF virtualized its server infrastructure, reducing the number of servers from nine to two. That level of downsizing allows the practice to be mobile when necessary. Anticipating the severity of Hurricane Ike in September 2008, KSF also utilized server virtualization to successfully provide access to medical records.
Prior to Hurricane Ike, KSF leveraged Microsoft Server Virtualization. The practice's two-person IT staff consolidated servers in about 36 hours the Friday before the hurricane hit. Less than 48 hours after the storm hit, KSF was the only functioning orthopedic center in Houston, allowing it to perform operations on Ike victims and injured first responders with all their electronic records intact. KSF leveraged virtualization to become a greener organization and to be better prepared for the unimaginable.
Another way health care is leveraging technology to go green is by utilizing Web conferencing, messaging and collaboration software to hold virtual employee meetings. This reduces the need for travel and cuts corresponding expenses from the budget.
Enabling virtual collaboration can also increase efficiency, since employees can connect with colleagues across town or across the country from nearly anywhere. In a 24/7 world, employees need to access information and applications anywhere and at any time, especially when it comes to health care. Implementing the ability for them to view clinical records and images while remaining connected with colleagues can increase productivity and lower costs.
Though this approach can involve additional security measures, it may be worth the extra effort if your organization's travel expenses are spiraling out of control.
Planting green technology on the desktop
Server virtualization delivers cost savings and environmentally friendly benefits, but it's often a "behind-the-scenes" solution that doesn't impact many front-line employees and caregivers. Desktop virtualization, another iteration of the technology, not only lowers energy costs but can increase productivity, slash capital expenses on PC hardware and ease IT headaches.
Desktop virtualization delivers on the promise of thin-client computing by centralizing management of all user desktop environments on a single platform contained and managed in the data center. Forrester Research recently published a report that compares thin clients to desktops, and found that thin clients consume between five and 60 watts per device compared with the 150 to 350 watts typically used by a desktop PC. For organizations that deploy thin-client technology, it's possible to see energy savings in the 24 percent range. And since thin clients last about seven years compared to the three or four years of a traditional desktop, that's less money spent on PC fleet upgrades.
Desktop virtualization also removes the need for each employee to have his/her own PC, which lowers both energy and maintenance costs. Employees can simply log into any terminal to access applications and data, thereby increasing their efficiency. IT administrators no longer have to waste time fixing or replacing broken machines; instead, they can focus on the centralized platform in the data center.
Security is another benefit gained from desktop virtualization. Since data's contained centrally, administrators don't have to worry that unauthorized users will gain access to unprotected employee PCs. Desktop virtualization also eliminates the threat of information theft and loss of laptops or mobile devices, since no data resides on such devices.
In a recent report released by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, analysts reported that, based on projections from the United States Department of Energy, overall energy use in commercial environments will rise 1.6 percent per year for the next 22 years. The energy used in offices full of PCs and power-guzzling devices is expected to grow at twice that rate. If the projected growth is that high for office buildings and corporate centers, imagine the figures for health care organizations, clinics and hospitals which, in addition to PCs and back-end IT infrastructure, must power a myriad of medical devices.
And while reducing expenses is the leading reason corporations are seeking more environmentally friendly practices - with 55 percent stating that reducing their energy-related operating expenses is the main reason for pursuing green IT strategies - 50 percent say that "doing the right thing for the environment" is their top motivator. The growing awareness of environmental issues and the popular groundswell toward going green presents an incredible opportunity for health care organizations to contribute positively not just to the health and well-being of patients, staff and caregivers, but to the planet as well.
Software solutions, virtualization and virtual collaboration tools are key to developing strategies that will drive cutting-edge health care technology and help these organizations become leaner, greener and healthier.