On the eve of 2022 World Health Day, we take a look at the important role telehealth plays in delivering sustainable healthcare services to communities around the globe.
The global climate crisis has made clear the need for sustainable practices – including in the medical sector – and telehealth has emerged as a powerful tool to make healthcare greener.
This week’s 2022 World Health Day theme, ‘Our planet, our health’, has brought into focus the inextricable link between the health of the planet and the health of all living things.
Globally, unsustainable practices have resulted in environmental degradation and unfortunately, the health sector is a large producer of carbon emissions.
Australian research estimates the healthcare system contributes seven percent of the country’s total carbon emissions, with public hospitals the biggest contributor of all (34% of the total).
A significant cause of these emissions is extensive travel by patients and health workers.
Telehealth – making healthcare greener
Global research supports the use of telehealth to deliver sustainable healthcare services. Here are five examples:
1. According to Swedish research, the use of telehealth is a potent carbon reduction strategy in the health sector.
The researchers compared carbon emissions generated during telehealth appointments with care-as-usual scenarios. They found that replacing physical visits with telehealth appointments resulted a significant 40-70 times decrease in carbon emissions.
Importantly, telehealth quickly became a greener choice at a distance of even just a few kilometres of travel for healthcare, when the alternative was transport by car.
Moving forward, for telehealth to contribute significantly to climate change mitigation, the researchers said a paradigm shift is required so telehealth becomes regarded as an essential component of ordinary healthcare activities – not just a service for patients who are medically remote.
2. Authors of a United States report examined ways to make healthcare more sustainable.
They found that telehealth and health information technology helped save time, energy, raw materials (such as paper and plastic), and fuel, thereby lowering the carbon footprint of the health industry.
The authors also suggested that companies implement other green practices such as engaging in carbon credit programs: Companies that reduce their carbon emissions by implementing energy-saving practices can sell their carbon credits to companies that emit more carbon than permissible. These carbon profits can then be used for healthcare research or to provide healthcare to the underserved.
3. For a United Kingdom perspective, an evidence review conducted by researchers at the Royal College of Physicians unanimously found that telehealth reduced the carbon footprint of healthcare.
Telehealth reduced the carbon footprint of healthcare, primarily by reduction in transport-associated emissions. The carbon footprint savings ranged between 0.70-372kg CO2e per consultation. Read the review here.
4. It has been estimated that the use of telehealth in Australia could save more than $300 million a year.
According to the Deeble Institute for Health Policy Research issue briefing: Towards a sustainable funding model for telehealth Australia, it has been estimated that the use of telehealth in Australia could save more than $300 million a year through reductions in the time consumers spend in travel to consultations (Productivity Commission, 2017b).
This reduction in travel translates to a direct reduction in carbon emissions: The results of a six-year study published in The Journal of Climate Change and Health found that increasing telehealth use in an integrated health system in the Pacific northwest of the United States, corresponded to a dramatic 51 percent decrease in ambulatory visit carbon intensity.
5. From a corporate perspective, Visionflex has adopted a sustainable approach to doing business.
Since 2019, Visionflex has used rooftop solar panels on its Sydney headquarters to drive down energy costs and offset carbon emissions. The energy produced by the 30kW rooftop solar photovoltaic system offsets almost 29,000kg of carbon emissions annually, or 57 barrels of oil.
The company has a packaging recycling system to manage soft packaging from the warehouse, paper, batteries, kitchen waste, coffee capsules and ink cartridges.
We are also exploring options around installation of a charging station for electric cars.
In terms of manufacturing, wherever possible Visionflex endeavours to use recycled materials, especially in its choice of packaging materials.
How else can the healthcare sector become more sustainable and still maintain patient safety and support ever-increasing demands on health services? Here are some additional points to consider:
- Reduce the use of single-use items.
- Aim for systems that provide energy, water, and solar efficiencies.
- Introduce recycling services.
- Reassess floorspace requirements.
- Audit supplier carbon footprints and sustainability policies including manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and transport companies.
- In greenfield environments, ensure there is a focus on design and materials that deliver thermal benefits.