Telemedicine: 1 win-win solution for health and planet

With the occasion of World Health Day that we are celebrating today under the theme – “our planet, our health” in today\’s article we will have a look at how Telemedicine affects our daily lives, our health, and our planet. Followed by the large-scale study published in The Journal of Climate Change and Health, researchers found that an increase in the use of telehealth corresponded to a dramatic decrease in carbon footprint, that is why many researchers, medical experts, and policymakers are discussing this future potential of telemedicine.  

Telemedicine and the carbon footprint of the healthcare sector


Healthcare, a sector whose mission is not to do any harm and to heal people, has a significant climate footprint and makes a major contribution to the climate crisis, which is already evolving into a global health emergency. A growing number of international studies and researchers confirm and shed light on this finding. 

No one would ask for emission reduction in the sector of healthcare since human health and life are at stake. However, evidence that is found suggests that the relationship between the quality of healthcare services and the carbon footprint of the healthcare sector may be reversed. As the complexity of a healthcare service is higher so are the carbon intensity and net gas emissions.  

Current healthcare practices and frequent mobilization of patients and medical supplies to healthcare facilities have been associated with higher carbon emissions. Therefore, using telemedicine and shifting some aspects of healthcare to remote schemes could be a solution paving the way to a sustainable and patient-friendly healthcare ecosystem. Telemedicine cannot replace doctor-patient communication in an in-person environment, yet teleconsultations and telesurveillance can support continuous, immediately accessible, and personalized care, which are key elements of patient-friendly healthcare ecosystems.  

Although telemedicine and the use of AI and technology in healthcare do generate carbon emissions, it is far fewer carbon emissions than traditional care practices where patients and health workers are expected to travel by different means of transportation to appointments. Taking into consideration that telemedicine’s and AI carbon footprint is not as high as traditional medical practices, it is discussed that telemedicine could be a potent climate change mitigation strategy, not just in rural areas but also in urban environments where the air quality is poor, the benefit of telemedicine might be even greater if few people would use public or private transport.  

Previous studies indicate that current telemedicine programs reduce travel-related emissions to a limited extent but implementing telemedicine more broadly could make a significant contribution to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change, including saving of energy, raw materials, reduction of fuel consumption and time.  

To achieve the best results regarding this topic, it is required to have a change of mindset in health care and proactive efforts from healthcare decision-makers.

Telemedicine as a solution to carbon footprint 

Telemedicine consists of healthcare services delivered remotely with the assistance of telecommunications. The broad definition of telemedicine reflects that this growing field includes numerous services: teleconsultations (remote consultation with a doctor), telesurveillance (remote patient monitoring), and tele-expertise (expert advice, doctor to doctor).  

Telemedicine is used for prevention and monitoring to replace in-person consultations, but even interventional procedures may be conducted remotely in the future. 

Telemedicine, also known as telehealth or e-medicine, is a tool that makes healthcare services more accessible, cost-effective, and that increases patient engagement. It is the delivery of health care services remotely, including tests and consultations, with the assistance of telecommunications. By using telemedicine healthcare professionals can evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients without the need for an in-person visit, making it accessible to people in rural areas that previously had difficulties accessing a physician. Physicians and patients can share information in real-time from one computer screen to another(teleconsultation). And they can even see and capture readings from medical devices at a faraway location. Patients can communicate with physicians from their homes by using their own personal technology or by visiting a dedicated telehealth kiosk. Use of it also makes it easier for health care professionals to monitor patients remotely – telesurveillance, and it is easier for doctors to inquire about opinions from experts – tele-expertise. 

There are concerns about the quality of healthcare provided remotely as patients and doctors are still learning how to use the innovative technology provided for telemedicine, nevertheless, many physicians and patients have had experience with telemedicine for years. Favorably, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a stimulator advising many doctors and patients around the world to familiarize themselves with innovative technologies and benefits from teleconsultations while practicing social distancing. Today and hopefully with COVID-19 behind us, teleconsultations and telesurveillance can replace some visits that would be impossible for patients living in remote areas or unnecessary for patients residing close to healthcare facilities. 

Previously conducted research demonstrated that telemedicine could drastically reduce medical practices\’ carbon footprint. The use of telemedicine resulted in a 40–70% reduction in carbon emissions compared to the conventional model of patients visiting healthcare facilities, due to the reduction of transport emissions. Indeed, a decrease in carbon footprint can differ from country to country, depending on general requirements regarding in-person consultations and additional laboratory and imaging exams. This stated, although telemedicine has a significant impact already, there is still space for improvement with an eye on how to ease the patient\’s burden in terms of accessibility and environmental burden in terms of reduction of carbon footprint. COVID-19 pandemic already contributed a lot to telemedicine, yet more can be done regarding disruptive technology and healthcare policies and institutions. 

The development of a combination of AI with telemedicine will further decrease healthcare’s carbon gas emissions. In the past few years, AI systems developed the capability of monitoring patients with chronic diseases or performing emergency assessments of patients seeking medical help at an acceptable level of accuracy and safety. As an example, inflammatory bowel diseases, acute abdominal pain, epilepsy, etc. are used in the context of research on the application of AI in the improvement of patients’ health. Further, profound research and studies are undoubtedly necessary, particularly for health conditions that have yet to be assessed with the use of AI. However, putting in use the existing knowledge in acute and chronic care can reduce the amount of healthcare-related carbon footprint, as unnecessary consultations in emergency departments may be avoided, so the medical staff on standby for this kind of emergency can be reduced as well.  

From an environmental point of view, AI and telemedicine combined will decrease the health sector\’s carbon footprint. This sustainable approach to healthcare has the potential to revolutionize not only environmental but health policy as well. It does not require lots of effort to protect our planet, compared to many other political or economic changes. The mitigation of carbon footprint and upscaling of telemedicine are both happening parallelly which is why it does not require many sacrifices to achieve it.  

Although it will take efforts in terms of time to raise awareness and education to achieve concrete results, the COVID-19 pandemic already has urged humanity to think about the environment and medical practices, making the use of telemedicine and AI to lower the carbon gas emissions of healthcare more important than ever.

Katarina Petkovic