Virtual health can reduce industry's carbon footprint, says Blue Shield of California

Virtual healthcare holds the key to not only increasing patient satisfaction and lowering costs but also reducing the industry’s carbon footprint, according to a new report.

Blue Shield of California worked with consulting company Anthesis Group to study two virtual and hybrid models of care and concluded that the technology cuts water consumption by 35% and carbon emissions by 25%, according to a white paper (PDF). The analysis compared a hybrid approach, which included a mix of patients treated in-person and virtually, to one where all patients were seen in-person.

Data were collected at two sites: the Paradise Medical Group from January 2020 through December 2020, and the Sacramento/Hill Physicians Medical Group from March 2020 through December 2020.

The white paper found that if the worldwide healthcare industry were a nation, it would be responsible for 4.5% of worldwide greenhouse gas, making it the fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet. In the U.S., the healthcare industry accounts for 8.5% of carbon emissions and 7% of commercial water consumption.

The Blue Shield white paper resulted in part from the company’s response to the 2018 Camp Fire, considered the most destructive in California’s history, causing $12.5 billion in insurance losses and devastating the town of Paradise: displacing 83% of its population because 90% of houses sustained significant damage. Primary healthcare sites had also been destroyed.

The Blues plan “began delivering a hybrid of in-person and virtual care solutions to affected communities,” the white paper said. “While this scenario demonstrated the benefits of virtual care for climate resilience, it also provided Blue Shield with a unique case to study and analyze the environmental benefits of virtual care.”

Despite being critical during COVID and after the Camp Fire disaster, some barriers to virtual care remain, including the lack of effective data-sharing systems and the fact that though lawmakers extended flexibilities granted to virtual care because of COVID-19 through 2024 there’s no guarantee that they will be extended beyond that point, given the evidence that patients and physicians seem to have had some second thoughts about it.

In addition, questions have been raised about virtual health’s effect on healthcare racial and ethnic disparities, “specifically around lack of access to communication technology and information, which are intensified by poverty, underresourcing, homelessness, and other factors that decrease digital health literacy skills,” the white paper said. “Virtual care will become increasingly valued and widely adopted if it becomes equally accessible and digitally secure while maintaining a high quality of care.”

According to the white paper, the benefits of virtual care include:

  • Allowing individuals better identify the specialists who would offer them care tailored toward their conditions, especially for patients living in rural areas.
  • Increase access to a diverse group of physicians who might be more in tune with the needs of specific racial or ethnic groups.
  • Reduce travel for the family and friends of children and the elderly. Researchers cited a recent UC Davis Health study showing that virtual care reduced travel by an average of 17.6 miles or 35 minutes and reduced tolls and/or gas costs by $11 compared to in-person visits.
  • Help caregivers get an idea of the individuals’ environments so that they could offer advice on how to make living in residences easier.
  • Foster stronger trust and long-term relationships between caregivers and individuals that improved outcomes.
  • Encourage better patient scheduling, transfers, referrals and diagnosis, as well as better monitoring outside of a healthcare setting, cutting down on readmissions and helping patients with disabilities live at home longer.
  • Reduced the number of patients needing to be seen in communities with fewer providers, while also expanding the window for when consultations could occur, which proved especially beneficial for patients who couldn’t be seen during normal hours or those with chronic and/or mental health problems.
  • Bolstered monitoring of medication, helping providers adjust as needed, which improved disease management and decrease complications.
  • Better triaging of patients helped providers decide which individuals needed to be seen in person and in what order.

The researchers called their work only a first step toward understanding healthcare’s environmental impact and urged that the healthcare industry collect data and measure the environmental impact of both in-person and virtual care.

“It is well understood that what matters is what gets measured, and what gets measured gets managed,” the white paper said. “To make transformational, systemic change, virtual care must only be one component of an ambitious, cohesive decarbonization strategy coordinated across all levels of the healthcare industry.”