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Telehealth cuts greenhouse gas emissions by reducing patient travel

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Study examines environmental effects of online visits between physicians, patients.

Telehealth may be good for the Earth as well as patients, according to a study that examined environmental effects of online visits with physicians and patients.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, digital visits saved an estimated 204 years of travel time over more than 53.66 million miles, more than $35.54 million in travel-related costs, and 42.4 injuries in California.

A number of studies have examined telehealth – patient comfort using it, patient health outcomes, and satisfaction. In a news release, lead author Sristi Sharma, MD, called it the first large-scale review of environmental factors relating to telehealth use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our study documented the many benefits of utilizing telehealth for ambulatory visits,” said Sharma, a UC Davis preventive medicine physician. “The world is currently in a climate crisis. Being one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, the health care industry should be taking serious steps to decrease its carbon footprint and telehealth is one of them.”

The study by UC Davis Health involved five University of California health systems in Davis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Irvine, and San Diego, which together serve close to 40 million patients. Researchers estimated round-trip travel distances and time, costs, injuries, and fatalities avoided, along with greenhouse gas emissions that would have been generated.

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From January 2020 to December 2021, the clinics had almost 16.8 million outpatient visits, and about 18% of those were telehealth visits. On average, the telehealth visits helped patients avoid average travel of 17.6 miles over 35 minutes, at a cost of $11.

Added together, fewer vehicle trips saved an estimated 21,466 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over two years, the equivalent of a year’s worth of carbon dioxide emissions from electricity use of 4,177 homes.

The researchers said they hope health care facilities can build on the momentum created by the COVID-19 safety measures and continue using telehealth when the pandemic is over.

“Even if only 25% of ambulatory visits were conducted via telehealth, there would still be substantial cost savings and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” senior author James Marcin, MD, MPH, said in the news release. Marcin is professor of pediatrics and director of the UC Davis Center for Health and Technology.

The study was published in the Journal of Telemedicine and eHealth.


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