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Medicine’s Carbon Footprint can be reduced with Telehealth

A study just published in The Journal of Climate Change and Health found that as Telehealth use increased in the Pacific Northwest, transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions decreased dramatically. The study looked at six years of outpatient care at Kaiser Permanente Northwest, covering over 600,000 individuals in Oregon and Washington.

It was a cooperation between Northwest Permanente, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. According to the report, the healthcare industry is a “major contributor” to greenhouse gas emissions. The healthcare industry in the United States increased its emissions by 6% between 2010 and 2018. Although many of these emissions are caused directly or indirectly by facilities or the supply chain, experts point out that patient transit to clinics also contributes to healthcare’s carbon footprint.

From 2015 through 2020, the team looked at the overall number of in-person and telemedicine visits. First, they determined the average distance between patients’ homes and their assigned primary care clinics, then utilized data from the Oregon Department of Transportation on how people do errands to estimate the percentage of in-person trips that were made by automobile.

They also predicted that Telehealth appointments would completely replace in-person visits (which may not be accurate, as other studies about downstream care have shown). Overall, in-person outpatient visits climbed at 1.5 percent per year from 2014 to 2019 but fell by 46.2 percent in 2020. Meanwhile, Telehealth visits, which had been expanding, increased by 108.5 percent in 2020. As a result, according to the researchers, greenhouse gas emissions from patient travel for primary care, specialty care, and mental health visits decreased from 19,659 tonnes CO2-eq in 2019 to 10,537 tonnes CO2-eq in 2020.

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