Why telehealth is a weapon against climate change

Conducting outpatient visits via telehealth when possible and measuring the average greenhouse gas emission per outpatient visit can significantly reduce the healthcare industry's carbon footprint, the American Medical Association reported Sept. 1.

Northwest Permanente, part of Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente, serves 600,000 members in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Telehealth visits among these members increased from 39.3 percent per year from 2015 through 2019 and then jumped in 2020 by 108.5 percent. 

Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation to and from outpatient visits increased by about 6 percent between 2015 and 2019. They dropped sharply in 2020, equal to the emissions created annually by 1,200 homes.

Ambulatory visit carbon intensity, a new metric that measures the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with a given outpatient visit, dropped by 51 percent. 

Colin Cave, MD, Northwest Permanente’s medical director of external affairs, government relations and community health, and his colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Climate Change and Health detailing the positive environmental effects brought about by Northwest Permanente's telehealth surge. It called for standardized metrics to define providers' environmental performance, proposing ambulatory visit carbon intensity as a key metric.

Northwest Permanente was able to close two small primary care clinics, one mental health clinic and one renal clinic, consolidating those services in other clinics since so much of that care is now provided virtually.

"If you are having the same number of outpatient visits, but more of them are virtual and it allows you to close physical plants, then you should get credit environmentally for reducing your carbon footprint," Dr. Cave said.

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