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The ability to help create better health and a safer planet has become undeniable.

We got some bad news recently –“we” as in the entire planet. The latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued a “code red for humanity” and provided an accelerated timeline for planetary warming. The report warns of increasingly extreme disasters, heatwaves, droughts, and storms, among other dire outcomes. What if we told you there’s a role telehealth can play in saving the planet and in turn, saving lives?

Think back to the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns and work-from-home policies left business districts empty, while social media filled up with photos of wildlife invading residential neighborhoods –a bear casually lumbering across a front yard in suburban upstate New York, wild javelina running through downtown Phoenix. Highways went eerily quiet, creating a drop in global carbon dioxide emissions. Environmentalists and business leaders alike noted the benefits of conducting business from home. But it’s something telehealth advocates have known for years.

The “virtual house call” revolution has always been lauded for democratizing healthcare. Telehealth’s potential to reduce energy consumption on a massive scale hasn’t gotten quite as much attention. But as more providers and patients connected virtually during the pandemic, the ability to help create better health and a safer planet has become undeniable and the role it can play in saving the planet and therefore, saving lives is a very real possibility.

Lightening Our Carbon Footprint

Forward-thinking healthcare leaders have long been interested in measuring telehealth’s impact on the environment. When Common Spirit Health calculated those savings, they connected 1.5 million virtual visits to the prevention of 1,678,956 gallons of fossil fuels being burned and 15,092 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released. The patients saved 923,276 hours and nearly $11 million. Those savings were the equivalent of planting 250,000 new trees and removing more than 3,000 cars from traffic for a year.

A 2017 study tracked telemedicine savings between 1996 and 2013. The results found patients avoided more than 5 million miles of driving. The virtual visits also prevented nearly 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide and 50 metric tons of carbon monoxide.

These numbers matter –and not just because they’re good news for the environment. Healthcare leaders can use them to justify the expansion of a telehealth program as part of their own green initiatives. Your average hospital burns lights and energy around the clock, consuming thousands of pounds of paper. And that’s before calculating the emissions generated by the vehicles of every provider, patient, staff member, and visitor. Healthcare leaders know this and many hospitals are trying to reduce their single-use plastics consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and overall energy use.

But telehealth’s sustainability advantage isn’t just about saving the planet –it’s about the patient, too.

Solving Pollution, Saving the Planet and Lives

CO2 levels have repercussions beyond increasing pollution levels –and those repercussions impact patient health.

Consider the likelihood of extreme weather events. That’s a direct consequence of climate change, and those events –from wildfires to tsunamis to hurricanes –can block patients from picking up much-needed medications or visiting their physician’s office. Telehealth not only reduces emissions but connects patients to care even if a natural disaster has limited their travel. When a winter storm tore through the southern United States this year, clinicians were able to keep seeing patients from their own homes. Digital health tools help clinicians provide care even when fallen trees, flooding, and evacuations make it impossible to be there in person.
Of course, reducing pollution contributes to better health for all people. The environment influences us from groundwater to air quality. Asthma rates are worse in areas with more pollution and highway gases; heat plays a role too. One study found that for every degree Celsius the temperature rises because of CO2 levels, ozone pollution is expected to kill an additional 22,000 people through respiratory illness, asthma, and emphysema. A study published in 2021 found that about a third of heat-related deaths worldwide can be directly attributed to human-caused climate change. But if we cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, one researcher estimated that 74 million lives could be saved.
Even diseases like Lyme disease, Dengue, and Zika are on the rise, tripling in the US between 2004 and 2016. Why? Because our warmer climate extends the activity of mosquitoes, ticks, and other disease vectors. They’ve expanded their habitats and can spread disease longer before colder seasons render them inert.

A Greener Future is a Healthier Future

Those quiet days of the early pandemic were frightening, but they showed us a vision of positive change. Striving for a healthier planet isn’t an environmentalist boondoggle; it’s part of keeping people healthier as well. Virtual care benefits both from so many angles that it’s time for everyone to act –and commit to telehealth programs now.

We can create the right virtual health solution for you.

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