How green is your digital health technology?

Vladimir Anikeev

With all the excitement in recent years about the potential for digital health technologies to relieve pressures on health systems and improve patient outcomes, there has been little attention paid to the environmental impact of their use.

Now, a study led by a researcher at King's College London (KCL) aims to plug that knowledge gap, examining the sustainability of artificial intelligence-enabled health and exploring how ethical principles can be integrated to make it as 'green' as possible.

Overall, the digital sector produces a significant carbon footprint, predicted to contribute between 2.1% and 3.9% of all emissions, which is similar in scale to the aviation industry.

Moreover, it also generates large amounts of electronic waste that can contain hazardous materials, such as lead, mercury, and nickel, which can pose health risks to the people involved in their recycling and disposal.

Balancing that is the potential of digital health technologies to make health systems more efficient and environmentally sustainable, but at the moment there has been little work done on the environmental effects of AI and data technologies, as well as ethical considerations surrounding issues like unsustainable or toxic mineral extraction and e-waste disposal.

The new 12-month project is led by Dr Gabrielle Samuel, a lecturer in environmental justice and health at KCL, and will investigate the environmental impacts of digital health both in the UK and internationally. It is being supported with £2.5 million ($3.2 million) from the college's Climate and Sustainability seed fund.

AI systems are playing a greater role in healthcare delivery and research, particularly to support decision-making, automate processes, and analyse large datasets, according to the researchers. However, they contend that the environmental impacts of the databases, infrastructures, and software supporting AI remain poorly understood.

"More and more people in the digital health sector are wanting to better understand how to consider issues of sustainability within their work, but they don't understand how to go about it," said Dr Samuel.

She will work on the project with Dr Federica Lucivero, senior researcher in ethics and data at the University of Oxford, in partnership with NHS Digital and other colleagues in Canada, India, Australia, and Kenya.

The team plans to build an international centre for the study of the sustainability of AI-enabled health that will "communicate insights to stakeholders, including researchers, policymakers, healthcare providers, and institutions."

Photo by Vladimir Anikeev on Unsplash.