The Role of Virtual Care and Telehealth in Making Healthcare Greener

There are over 7 billion people on Earth, and almost all of them will need health care at some point in their lives. The healthcare industry is arguably one of the most important industries in the world, and one that needs to go green. 

Why? 

Medical facilities are one of the world’s biggest generators of waste, and one the biggest energy users. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the healthcare industry spends $6.5 billion in energy every year, and generates up to five million tons of solid waste.1  

Generally speaking, the American healthcare industry lacks environmentally sustainable practices. Unfortunately, most people overlook this, either because of ignorance or ambivalence, or fears about additional regulations and costs.

Current healthcare practices are contributing to global warming by polluting the environment. With large amounts of travel and paperwork, required by both the patient and the provider, a change needs to be made for healthcare to become greener.

One way to lower the carbon footprint of the health industry is virtual care and telehealth. These telemedicine solutions help to save time, fuel, energy and raw materials such as paper and plastic. Other green practices, like taking part in a carbon-credit program, could also have knock-on benefits. Companies who implement energy-saving practices and reduce their carbon emissions can sell their carbon credits to companies who produce more emissions than allowed by their contacts. This way, the healthcare industry could benefit financially, which would in turn allow them to provide healthcare to the underserved, or open up funding for research.2

Virtual healthcare and telehealth could be the solution for a greener healthcare industry.

The Role of Virtual Healthcare and Telehealth

There is no doubt that the United States is seeing a shift towards virtual healthcare. According to a report by medical research firm Parks Associates, 60% of U.S. households with broadband access “are interested in remote care that would take place online or by telephone.” 3

People are drawn to the idea of healthcare services which can come to them, rather than vice versa. This is not surprising, as nowadays, everything is available at the touch of a button – food, friends, products and services, even counselling services. Virtual healthcare offers just such a solution, providing patients with a means to consult with healthcare professionals like doctors and nurses from the comfort of home. 

But what is virtual healthcare, exactly? How does it meet the need for a change in the traditional healthcare delivery model? What’s the difference between virtual healthcare and telehealth, if there even is one?

What Is Virtual Healthcare?

Virtual healthcare means any of the ‘virtual visits’ which take place via communication technology, facilitating a meeting between patients and clinicians. These visits occur in real time, from any location.

Virtual visits can take the form of a videoconference between a doctor and a patient at their home. Alternatively, it could allow a patient to interact with an off-site medical specialist via conferencing at their local clinic, rather than having to travel to another city. Virtual healthcare and telehealth also give patients the opportunity to easily find a qualified second opinion online. 

So far, virtual healthcare and telehealth have mainly been used to facilitate consultations, check-ins and status reports, rather than treatments or in-depth diagnoses. Technology is evolving, though, and now even more serious conditions are falling under the influence of telehealth and virtual care. Specialists are also now able to monitor procedures or their patients from remote locations. Home patient monitoring has proven useful for treating chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, where rehospitalizations may have otherwise occurred due to lack of transparency or communication.

What’s the Difference Between Virtual Healthcare and Telehealth?

While the term virtual healthcare has sometimes been used synonymously with telehealth, or telemedicine, they’re not really the same thing. Virtual healthcare is actually just a component of telehealth, which is a far broader term which encompasses all of technology-driven and/or remote healthcare.

In a video from the RPM Academy, Care Innovations COO Marcus Grindstaff explains, “There’s a little bit of evolution happening in the naming of the different kinds of technologies. Telehealth is a very broad category of solutions that service patients at a distance — so it could be doctor visits at a distance, it could be chronic condition management, it could be managing high-risk pregnancy. But doing that at a distance, doing it remotely.”

Care Innovations Chief Clinical Officer Julie Cherry (RN, MSN) also adds, “Telehealth technology may be a telephone, it could be a videoconferencing capability, it could be an IVR system. It sort of encompasses all the different kinds of technologies, but it’s the idea that you’re using these technologies to gather information and exchange information.”

The fact the terms are often used interchangeably just goes to show how important virtual healthcare is to telehealth. To avoid the time spent travelling to visits, the expense, and the wasted resources, demand is growing for virtual healthcare. Especially in rural areas, where attracting healthcare providers at all is difficult, virtual healthcare and telehealth are vital for providing basic access. 

According to Dr. Adam Licurse, Medical Director for Telehealth at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, wrote in the Harvard Business Review on the success of a virtual visit pilot program. The program yielded a 97% satisfaction rate among patients. 74% of patients stated “that the interaction actually improved their relationship with their provider.”

He also added, “We were encouraged to find that 87% of patients said they would have needed to come into the office to see a provider face to face if it weren’t for their virtual visit.” 

Acceleration of Telehealth Use

Telehealth has really been kicked into high gear since the beginning of COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns. Many patients who would have otherwise gone to the clinic or hospital for minor symptoms or routine checks have been encouraged to use virtual services to contact their doctor.

This has led to an acceleration in the number of Americans making use of telehealth solutions. According to a McKinsey COVID-19 Consumer Survey, adoption of telehealth in the United States has increased from 11% in 2019 to over 46% in April 2020. Many Americans are looking for ways to replace their cancelled healthcare visits technologically, while healthcare professionals have increasingly been offering telehealth visits.

According to the same report, providers are seeing up to 175 times as many telehealth patients now than they did pre-pandemic.

Before COVID-19, virtual healthcare and telehealth services were most often used only for urgent care. Now, however, use of these services are shifting. Rather than instantly and randomly pairing providers and patients for a single visit, telehealth visits are now used by providers to see their regular patients, as well as provide speciality care across borders.

Annual revenues for U.S. telehealth providers pre-pandemic were valued at around $3 billion. Now, with the rapid adoption of telehealth and expanded uses, approximately $250 billion of US healthcare spending is projected to be virtualized.4

Final Thoughts

Virtual healthcare and telehealth are showing numerous benefits. Some patients can now receive treatment more quickly and conveniently than they otherwise could have. An NHS study also found that replacing physical appointments with telehealth could reduce carbon emissions by 40 to 70 times.

Telehealth can also help to reduce or eliminate waste from multiple sources without compromising the quality of care that patients receive. 

In order to explore the full extent of how telehealth will help the medical industry be more environmentally sustainable, further studies are currently underway. The proof that telehealth is an excellent choice for patients, providers, and our world is evident in the green benefits we are already seeing.

Find out more about Beam’s Telemedicine Solutions, which allow employers and facilities to expand access to high-quality care, keeping healthcare affordable.

 

References

http://www.isustainableearth.com/sustainable-living/healthcare-going-green 
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/41434566_Telemedicine_Can_Make_Healthcare_Greener
https://news.careinnovations.com/blog/what-is-virtual-healthcare-how-does-it-fit-into-telehealth
https://hellohealth.com/blog/telehealth-and-the-rise-of-virtual-healthcare/

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