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.