Telemedicine – An Eco-Solution?

It’s 2019 –  our winters getting a bit warmer and seasons becoming a bit more extreme.  Climate change is upon us and we have the opportunity to act using telemedicine.

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions are the largest climate change contributor, so reducing processes with extremely high CO₂ output is critical, including healthcare. “To meet the growing demand of global healthcare needs without negatively impacting climate change, sustainable and low-carbon systems of telemedicine could be the answer.”  Healthcare is constantly innovating to improve care and reduce costs for all stakeholders but is now further tasked with reducing negative environmental impacts.  The structure of telemedicine provides healthcare the means to accomplish these goals – but requires widespread adoption.

Increasing E-Documents

Our healthcare system is heavily dependent on paper but the transition to paperless has received a large boost through the adoption of Electronic Health Records (EHRs).  EHRs are more eco-friendly and more efficient by reducing repetitive paperwork that can interface with electronic programs that cover billing and telemedicine services. EHRs can also reduce paper through online scheduling digital paperwork and e-signatures, e-subscriptions, and email/online chat platforms.  On average, each patient requires 10-13 pieces of paper per visit, so the reduction of paper in any step of the workflow is noteworthy.

According to the WHO, “of the total amount of waste generated by health-care activities, about 85% is generally, non-hazardous waste comparable to domestic waste.”  Domestic waste refers to common disposables, paper, etc. and in health care, this waste is often found in the administrative setting – and is avoidable.  (The remaining 15% of waste is hazardous and discarded according to very strict disposal guidelines.) Thus, virtual care is a potential solution for reducing administrative waste and can be adopted throughout the healthcare industry.

Carbon Emission

Rural locations are typically the regional focus for telemedicine implementation due to the expansive geographical range that providers and patients must traverse.  Changing processes in these areas provides the opportunity for powerful environmental impact, as rural areas can span 3,000 square miles and 10+ counties, so both the provider and patient travel have the potential to be extensive in distance and frequency.

According to a study released by Kaiser Permanente, healthcare contributes to 8% of all greenhouse gasses and 7% of CO₂ emissions – just in the U.S. alone.  EHRs and telemedicine greatly reduce the number of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by reducing the number of in-office visits and replacing follow-ups or prescription refills with a virtual video appointment.  Particularly for rural patients, who might travel hours to see a physician, conducting routine appointments through video can reduce CO₂ emissions by 1.7 million tons per year – or an estimated 300,000 fewer cars on the roads.  Add that to physicians who travel to multiple locations for similar routine appointments, and the impact is significant.

UC Davis Case Study

A significant change may seem hard to implement, but it’s possible if done correctly.  The University of California at Davis (UC Davis) showed that no challenge is too big by conducting a study using its telemedicine program to estimate the savings in time, costs, and environmental output over an 18-year period.

By replacing video-based telemedicine for clinical appointments and consultations, they were able to curtail patient travel by over 5 million miles.  The time and cost savings were equally significant – nearly 9 years of travel time and $3 million in travel costs – based on patient travel to a telemedicine center near their home, compared to travel to a UC Davis Health facility.

CO₂ emissions and paper reduction are measured in millions of tons, and the UC Davis telemedicine program helped reduce about 2,000 metric tons of CO₂, 50 metric tons of CO, 3.7 metric tons of NOx and 5.5 metric tons of volatile organic compounds.  All done by supplementing a 33-county region’s healthcare needs with telemedicine. ATA president and UC Davis professor Peter Yellowlees said of the finding, “Telemedicine and health information technology helps save time, energy, raw materials (such as paper and plastic), and fuel, thereby lowering the carbon footprint of the health industry.”

Long-Term Options

Throughout the world, healthcare systems of various structures are “facing the challenge of meeting the fundamental right of all citizens to adequate health according to the WHO and UN goals of universal health coverage and healthy life expectancy”.  This challenge is an ever-moving target, strived for while improving the quality of care, reducing cost output, and now reducing the carbon output the sector emits.

One of the barriers to carbon-reducing efforts in the healthcare sector is the perception that eco-friendly equals more expensive.  UC Davis proves that the opposite is true. Telemedicine and healthcare technology saves time, energy, materials, and fuel, lowering the carbon footprint.  As climate change becomes a more dire issue, solutions need to become increasingly more creative and user-friendly.

Telemedicine has the potential to be a strong carbon reduction strategy for the healthcare sector.  However, to “significantly contribute to climate change mitigation” telemedicine needs to become ubiquitous to healthcare instead of a siloed solution that is used sparingly.  Consider the connection between the benefits:

  • Telemedicine increases access to care for more patients
  • Which eliminates travel and administrative waste from the environment and
  • Mitigates health risks arising from pollution and climate change including infectious diseases and pulmonary complications

Interested in learning more about telemedicine?  Click here.  At VisuWell, we don’t claim to be climate experts, but we do enthusiastically support increased healthcare access and healthier patient populations that telemedicine provides.  The environmental benefits don’t hurt though.