Environmental impact: The surprising benefits of telemedicine

A recent study suggests that expanding telemedicine can help to reduce CO2 emissions, while saving time and money for patients and their caregivers alike.

What is carbon footprint?

Carbon footprint (CF) is a parameter that is used to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions caused by a product, service, organisation, event or individual, usually expressed in tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

According to the Kyoto Protocol, the greenhouse gases to be taken into account are carbon dioxide (CO2, hence the name 'carbon footprint'), methane (CH4), nitrogen monoxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). This parameter can be used to determine the environmental impacts that emissions have on anthropogenic climate change, i.e. all interventions in the transformation of the natural environment by humans.

These interventions are implemented with the aim of adapting the environment to our needs and improving our quality of life. However, they do not always have a positive impact but, on the contrary, can damage the balance of ecosystems.

The calculation of a product's carbon footprint includes the quantification of all greenhouse gas emissions throughout the product life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials to the final disposal of the product. As you can easily imagine, healthcare systems have a significant impact on carbon footprint measurements, and that also means that they can be instrumental in improving environmental conditions on our planet.

Telemedicine helps the environment... and patients

A recent study sought to estimate the reduction in CF for patients using telemedicine. A search of PubMed, Scopus and Web of Science databases was conducted to identify studies describing telemedicine consultation and reporting on carbon emissions saved and carbon emissions of telemedicine devices as primary outcomes; travel distance, time and cost savings, and safety as secondary outcomes.

Carbon emissions and travel distances were calculated for each total study cohort. Risk of bias was assessed using the Newcastle-Ottawa scale, while the Oxford level of evidence was determined.

A total of 48 studies met the inclusion criteria, covering 68,465,481 telemedicine consultations and saving 691,825 tonnes of CO2 emissions and 3,318,464,047 km of travel distance. The carbon rating was mostly reported as the distance saved using a conversion factor.

Medical specialities used telemedicine to connect specialists with patients at home (n = 25) or at a local centre (n = 6). Surgical specialties used telemedicine for virtual preoperative assessment (n = 9), follow-up (n = 4) and general consultation (n = 4).

Savings per consultation ranged from 21.9 to 632.17 minutes and US$1.85 to US$325. More studies focused on the time frame of COVID-19 (n = 33) than before the pandemic (n = 15). However, the studies show limitations due to travel distance calculations for carbon savings and adequate follow-up to analyse the actual impact on travel and appointments.

Telemedicine reduces the carbon footprint of the healthcare sector. Researchers determined that people using teleconsultations used their cars less and saved time and money, as well as CO2 emissions. Some studies have only looked at the amount of CO2 saved by avoiding the use of cars, so there may be more to learn about the benefits of teleconsultations.

  1. Rodler S, Ramacciotti LS, Maas M, Mokhtar D, Hershenhouse J, De Castro Abreu AL, Fuchs G, Stief CG, Gill IS, Cacciamani GE. The Impact of Telemedicine in Reducing the Carbon Footprint in Health Care: A Systematic Review and Cumulative Analysis of 68 Million Clinical Consultations. Eur Urol Focus. 2023 Nov;9(6):873-887. doi: 10.1016/j.euf.2023.11.013. Epub 2023 Nov 29. PMID: 38036339.