Expanded during pandemic, virtual healthcare offers big climate benefits: researchers

Expanded during pandemic, virtual healthcare offers big climate benefits: researchers

Online doctor visits or phone appointments can reduce costs, travel and time in the waiting room, but virtual health care can also have environmental benefits, researchers from British Columbia have found. and Nova Scotia.
With fewer people traveling to medical appointments by car or public transit, some say online or phone appointments could continue to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions after the pandemic.

“Virtual care has long been a priority for people who work in this space,” said Dr. Andrea MacNeill, surgical oncologist at Vancouver General Hospital and associate professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Columbia. British.

“We recognize that from an environmental perspective, this is a high performance area of ​​focus to avoid not only travel-related emissions, but also more emissions-intensive interactions with the healthcare system. ”

According to a Canadian Medical Association (CMA) survey released last June, 47% of Canadians have used virtual care such as calls, emails, texts or video during the pandemic. Of these, 91 percent said they were very satisfied with the experience.

The staff at Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) wanted to know what some of their patients thought about telemedicine.

After polling around 100 people who had appointments between April and July last year in five departments, they found that virtual visits helped patients save time while reducing emissions.

A clinician demonstrates how to use a device applied to the finger to monitor oxygen levels during a video conference at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. (Submitted by Women’s College Hospital)

Many patients interviewed said they would have traveled 15 kilometers or less to get to the appointment.

VCH staff then calculated the amount of travel emissions avoided, using the BC government methodology to quantify greenhouse gas emissions.

“For every appointment avoided in person that is now a virtual appointment, we ended up avoiding between two and five kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per appointment,” said Marianne Dawson, sustainability consultant from Vancouver area health organizations including VCH.

Dawson said the numbers may seem small, but increased to include patients in the region, “we can see how quickly these avoided emissions will add up. ”

Health sector and greenhouse gases

The healthcare sector in Canada is among the worst in the world in terms of greenhouse gases, according to a 2019 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Compared to the health care systems of 47 countries, Canada has the third highest number of emissions per capita, according to an article by the Canadian Medical Association.

In Toronto, nurses and doctors at the University Health Network can assess patients with symptoms of COVID-19 without being in contact with them thanks to the technology. (Provided / University health network)

Dr Sean Christie and his colleagues in Halifax are working to create a greener health care system.

“Right now it’s probably not a priority for most people,” said Christie, neurosurgeon and co-director of a feature film project through the Healthy Population Institute at Dalhousie University.

“I think a lot of it is because it’s not out there that widely – healthcare has an impact on the environment. “

Christie and his colleagues are currently collecting data on the carbon footprint of different approaches to patient care, both in-person and virtual, in addition to patient surveys, he said.

He expects to see results at the end of the summer.

“A lot of healthcare, especially in Canada but around the world, is really about cost-efficiency and care,” he said.

“We are not trying to get rid of this, but include in this consideration the environmental cost of our care. “

Environmental benefits of telemedicine

Even before the pandemic, studies showed that telemedicine can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A March review of 14 studies on telemedicine and carbon emissions published in the Future Healthcare Journal found that the studies “unanimously report that telemedicine reduces the carbon footprint of healthcare, primarily by reducing emissions. associated with transport ”.

The review authors said the carbon footprint savings ranged from 0.70 to 372 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per appointment.

The review found that the carbon footprint of telephone and video telemedicine was small compared to the emissions saved through reduced travel.

“This could have broad implications in reducing the carbon footprint of healthcare services around the world,” the critics wrote, adding that more research is still needed.

Many Canadians have used video conferencing or phone calls during doctor’s appointments during the COVID-19 pandemic. (TippaPatt / Shutterstock)

The challenge now, Christie said, is to raise awareness of the environmental benefits of telemedicine more widely so that it can continue to some extent after the pandemic.

“I don’t think that is on the minds of a lot of patients when they are faced with health care. But if no one tells you about a problem, you don’t necessarily mean it. So awareness, I think, is going to go a long way, ”he said.

“If there is a great public demand for something that has a lot of positive impact, then we’re going to hopefully make some good decisions. “


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