Greater use of teleheath — using technology for virtual health care appointments, rather than in-person visits — may reduce the health care sector’s contribution to climate change by as much as 50%, according to a new study published in The Journal of Climate Change and Health.
In the wake of catastrophic floods, wildfires, and an alarming new report by leading scientists warning that a drastic reduction in carbon emissions is needed to ensure a livable future for humanity, many industry leaders and consumers alike are looking for ways to immediately reduce their carbon footprint. In the health care sector, there are many practices that result in carbon emissions, but one of the largest factors is transportation to and from health care appointments. The adoption of telehealth (or telemedicine) by many health care providers in recent years — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — shows that many health care appointments can be successful without an actual office visit, and may be more convenient for patients while eliminating the carbon emissions linked to traveling for an appointment.
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For the latest study, researchers looked at the impact of telehealth adoption in a large health care system in the Pacific Northwest (Kaiser Permanente Northwest) on carbon emissions. They did this by calculating the number of in-person visits and telehealth visits each year, then estimating how many miles of travel — based on where patients lived, and where their health care providers were located — were eliminated through telehealth visits. They found that between 2015 and 2020, total outpatients visits in the health care system increased by 3.2% each year, on average, to reach 2.7 million visits in 2020. But there were some huge differences between in-person and telehealth visits, especially in 2020.
Increased telehealth linked to decreased carbon emissions
Between 2015 and 2020, telehealth visits increased by an average of 53.2% each year, while in-person visits saw an average gain of only 1.5% each year until 2020. That year, in-person visits dropped by 46.2%. Total estimated transportation-related carbon emissions increased from the equivalent of 18.5 kilotons of carbon dioxide in 2015 to 19.6 kilotons in 2019, then dropped to 10.5 kilotons in 2020 due to the drop in in-person visits. This represents a drop from about 8 to about 4 kilograms of carbon dioxide per visit — demonstrating that increased use of telehealth to replace in-person visits, when medically appropriate, has the potential to dramatically lower carbon emissions.
The researchers noted that climate change is already having a devastating effect on health around the world, due to effects ranging from wildfire smoke inhalation to heat-related hospitalizations and deaths. And in 2018, the carbon emissions linked to the U.S. health care sector alone were estimated to be responsible for a loss of 111,000 to 343,000 disability-adjusted life years — potentially almost one year of productive life lost, on average, for each and every person in the United States. If wider adoption of telehealth could reduce some of this damage, the researchers noted, it would help achieve the overall goal of health care providers to help people live longer, healthier lives.
Want to learn more about telehealth? read “Diabetes and Telehealth: Tips for a Successful Virtual Visit.”