Traveling or commuting to a healthcare facility for medical care is time-consuming, costly, and can generate carbon emissions that contribute to climate warming. A new study has found that telehealth video visits can help address these issues. Researchers from UC Davis Health recently analyzed data collected by five University of California healthcare systems over the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their goal was to assess the carbon footprint associated with telehealth services, together with their potential for saving time, costs, and patients’ lives compared with face-to-face visits.
The researchers found that telehealth services substantially reduced patient costs, collectively saving patients from commuting 53.6 million miles — the equivalent of over 100 trips to the moon and back — to receive care. According to the study, telehealth also collectively saved patients around 200 years in time they would have spent traveling to visit a healthcare practitioner in person and $33.5 million in travel costs. Other benefits include a reduction in injuries and fatalities due to the greater risk associated with travel and in-person visits during the height of the pandemic.
According to Sristi Sharma, a physician in preventative medicine at UC Davis and lead author of the paper, this is the first study of its kind to not only evaluate the savings related to travel distance, costs, and time, but also the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with utilizing telehealth to alleviate the need for outpatient visits. While advanced digital telecommunication technologies have been around for some time, until 2020, the healthcare sector was slow to adopt telehealth as an analog for in-person medical visits. However, this changed swiftly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Climate Change, COVID-19, and Telehealth
According to Sharma, the healthcare sector is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate warming. As such, the industry should be making concerted efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Telehealth is a step in the right direction, she says. For the study, which was recently published in the Journal of Telemedicine and eHealth, the researchers analyzed data pertaining to more than 3 million outpatient telehealth visits within five University of California health systems (UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Los Angeles, UC San Diego, and UC San Francisco) that took place during the first two years of the COVID-19 outbreak between March 1, 2020, and February 28, 2022.
They then set about calculating the travel distance from a patient’s home to the medical facility and back home, the time it would take the patient to travel to the hospital and back. Using Internal Revenue Service (IRS) 2022 standard mileage reimbursement rates, the authors calculated the cost savings associated with traveling there and back and estimated how much the risk of injury or death was avoided using the national motor vehicle crash data. They used 2021 national average vehicle emission rates to estimate the carbon emissions patients would have generated had they opted for in-person outpatient care rather than telehealth visits.
Telehealth Saves Patients Time and Money
The study suggests that telehealth can provide a safe, affordable, and efficient way to reduce greenhouse emissions and help combat climate change. The authors recommend telehealth services as an alternative to in-person outpatient care even once COVID-19 is under better control. This is due to it being both a people- and planet-friendly method of providing health care.
During the two-year study period, the authors found that telehealth patients avoided traveling an average of 17.6 miles per telehealth visit, saving them around 35 minutes in travel time and $11 in travel costs they would have otherwise incurred to get to a healthcare center for their appointment.
Telehealth Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions
After calculating the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with fewer trips by vehicle, the researchers found that carbon dioxide emissions alone were reduced by nearly 21,500 metric tons over the two-year study period. This is equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by power stations to provide over 4,100 homes in the US with power for a year. In addition, total hydrocarbons were reduced by 14.1 metric tons, exhaust carbon monoxide emissions were reduced by 212.3 metric tons, and exhaust nitrogen oxide emissions were reduced by 9.3 metric tons.
During the first two years of the pandemic, from January 2020 to December 2021, the UC health systems completed 16.8 million outpatient visits, 18 percent of which were telehealth visits. Given the benefits telehealth provides — and the considerable percentage of outpatient visits it already represents — the study authors conclude that telehealth should be considered when planning future healthcare services.
According to James Marcin, director of the UC Davis Center for Health and Technology, and senior author of the paper, even if just a quarter of outpatient visits made use of telehealth services, it would result in a significant reduction in costs and greenhouse gas emissions. The researchers hope that healthcare facilities will continue to utilize telehealth services for outpatient visits even once the pandemic is over, due to the benefits it offers patients and the environment.