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Telemedicine's Impact on the Environment

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Telemedicine, once a concept of what the future would bring, is now a fact of life and nearly all medical specialties have devised a telemedicine solution to fit their specific needs. The healthcare field has not been quick to evaluate the impact their practices have on the environment, however, the implementation of secure, HIPAA-compliant telemedicine platforms has changed the way medicine is practiced, and has become healthcare’s primary contribution to a healthier environment.

Telemedicine’s influence on efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of the healthcare field cannot be understated. The potential for telemedicine solutions to positively influence the environment on a worldwide scale is becoming a reality as it reaches out to other populations, some of which have never benefited from modern healthcare practices.  

Of primary concern to environmentalists is the amount of greenhouse gases emitted within the course of doing business. Healthcare-related greenhouse gas emissions are results of gasoline used in patient travel, including hospital visitors, home health care professionals, ambulances, laboratory delivery and pickup, and more. Physicians who previously traveled to outpatient clinics serving remote or under-served areas are now able to connect to patients from anywhere. Traveling to the emergency room, rehabilitation facilities, or the doctor’s office for follow up visits may be avoided by using telemedicine. 

Hospital admissions contribute to high energy usage and high carbon dioxide emissions. Patients living in rural areas lacking hospitals with advanced technologies or specialties travel long distances to obtain appropriate services. The cumulative energy and emissions resulting from this travel is considerable and now avoidable. Secure, HIPAA-compliant telemedicine solutions, which include online video sessions, have been shown to decrease hospital admissions without diminishing, and often improving, medical outcomes. With telemedicine linking the patient and doctor, acute conditions can be diagnosed and treated without the patient leaving their home. Those with a chronic condition, such as diabetes, neurological diseases, chronic heart failure, and more, are able to manage their condition from home using telemonitoring to transmit vital information and online video sessions with healthcare professionals. Equally important is the role telemedicine plays in identifying a serious condition of which further examination or hospitalization make the benefits of travel outweigh the negative effect on the environment. 

A study done in 2010 at an Academic Health Science Center in Canada compared the greenhouse gases emitted when patients traveled to certain health facilities themselves versus if the same person had traveled to the nearest telemedicine site to use an online video session. Using data from 840 visits spanning a six-month period, the results indicated that telemedicine visits required 470,500 miles fewer than those where a vehicle was used. The carbon dioxide equivalents saved were 408,300 lbs. Other vehicle air pollutants saved were 795 lbs. Included in the calculation were the emissions resulting from equipment used for the online video sessions. The authors concluded that the GHG emissions resulting from telemedicine solutions were minor when compared with the savings avoided by traveling to in-person visits.

Telemedicine’s positive contributions to environmental change expand beyond the obvious; it creates a trickle-down effect. Consider the following: fewer buildings required; more efficient use of hospital space, smaller waiting rooms, and fewer examination rooms. The benefits of telemedicine solutions are no longer confined to increasing access and improving patient outcomes but have become a prominent contributor towards conserving the environment by lowering the carbon footprint of the health industry.

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