Cut the carbon: Telemedicine can help reduce carbon emissions

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published May 19, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • The rise of telemedicine as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic allows patients to see their doctors without making long drives to hospitals and clinics—something that continues to have a direct impact on climate change.

  • Emerging research shows that patients with cancer who used telemedicine between 2020 and 2021 saved 424,471 kg of carbon dioxide emissions due to reduced travel.

  • The AMA states that physicians may successfully implement telehealth in their practice by preparing the care team, supporting patients as they adjust to new technology, and remaining open to feedback.

It’s no secret that telemedicine rapidly rose to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic. The physical distancing permitted through the technology allowed patients to receive quality care without risking exposure to the life-threatening virus, according to the AMA.[]

Today, researchers are uncovering another benefit of telemedicine: its potential to reduce carbon emissions by reducing travel. 

Physicians who want to implement telemedicine into their practices, and thus do their part to mitigate climate change, can accomplish this by prepping their colleagues and empowering patients to use telehealth.

Why reduce carbon emissions?

Health experts are well aware of the dangers of climate change for human health.

According to the WHO, “Climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity, and health professionals worldwide are already responding to the health harms caused by this unfolding crisis.”[]

One of the contributors to climate change are greenhouse gases, which trap heat and warm up the planet. And a large component of these gases is carbon emissions. Carbon emissions have both a direct effect on human health—from pollution, for example—and an indirect effect by contributing to climate change and extreme weather events. 

Among human activities that add to greenhouse gases, transportation accounts for about 27% of these emissions, according to the EPA.[]

"In 2021, emissions increased by 12%, which followed a decline of 13% in 2020 due to reduced travel demand during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. US Environmental Protection Agency, 2022"

US Environmental Protection Agency, 2022

Many policy makers already mandate initiatives to reduce carbon emissions. Telehealth, by reducing patients’ travel, could have an impact on carbon emissions.

One recent study was able to quantify how much.

Telehealth reduces carbon emissions

A study published by JAMA Network Open looked at the estimated carbon emission savings as a result of telemedicine visits at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) from April 2020 to June 2021.[]

Of the 49,329 total number of telemedicine visits, 21,489 were scheduled for patients who lived up to 60 drivable minutes away from the NCI.

Researchers found that these patients—who would’ve driven up to an hour, but instead used telemedicine—saved approximately 424,471 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, equating to a per-visit mean savings of 19.8 kg.

This is equivalent to the emissions produced by 91.5 passenger vehicles driven for 1 year.

The authors elaborate on the clinical significance of these findings:

“While the health care community advocates broadly for climate change policy, medical professionals can look within care practices to assess their contribution to [CO2] emissions, and provide solutions wherever possible,” they wrote. “Telemedicine can help in mitigating climate change by providing care from a distance.”

It’s all about transportation

So, in what way exactly does telemedicine help to mitigate carbon emissions?

According to researchers, the answer has more to do with what telemedicine doesn’t do.

A systematic review published by Future Healthcare Journal analyzed the effects of telemedicine on the carbon footprint.[]

Researchers found that, on average, each telemedicine consultation saved 0.70 to 372 kg of CO2 emissions.

The authors state that telemedicine visits produce far less CO2 than common modes of transportation that patients would otherwise be using.

“The carbon emissions produced from the use of the telemedicine systems themselves were found to be very low in comparison to emissions saved from travel reductions,” the authors wrote.

It’s safe to say, then, that the bulk of telemedicine-related CO2 emission savings are a direct result of a decrease in transportation use.

How to implement telehealth in your daily work

The AMA is supportive of telemedicine, citing its value during the COVID-19 pandemic in maintaining continuity of care; in addition, many regulatory restrictions on this practice have been removed.

If you’re ready to shift your practice to cut down on carbon emissions through the use of telehealth, there are a few steps you can take to ensure success, according to the AMA’s Telehealth Implementation Playbook.[]

Prep your care team: Before you initiate widespread use of telehealth in your practice, make sure everyone at your practice is clear on what their responsibilities are.

For example, you want to hone your focus on providing care to patients—not on administrative tasks. To avoid this, gather input from everyone on your care team and create a list of specific tasks for each member. This way, everyone knows what their role is before you begin.

Empower your patients: As the AMA states, telehealth is most effective when patients feel supported in using it.

In order to help your patients get on board with this method of care provision, use a patient-centered approach to engage and educate your patients about telehealth. Make yourself available to answer any questions they may have, as well as address any difficulties they come across.

Take note of what works: As you implement telehealth in your practice, monitor its effects on your practice using key success metrics. This is a good time to lend extra support to staff, patients, and colleagues who are using telehealth, too.

Listen to patients and staff who have feedback to offer, and be open to fine-tuning the process as needed.

With these tips in mind, you are sure to provide high-quality care without the carbon emissions that traditionally accompany it, thus doing your part to mitigate climate change.

What this means for you

Climate change poses major health risks, especially to individuals and societies who have the fewest resources available to protect themselves from its effects. Physicians who want to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint may do so by using telemedicine whenever possible. To maximize the potential of telehealth, physicians may want to organize administrative responsibilities among their care team, empower patients to embrace the technology, and track success metrics, while remaining open to receiving feedback from patients and staff.

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