Curbing Climate Change with Virtual Care

By Bobby Gheorghiu

As the world examines the outcomes of COP26 and the ongoing climate emergency, many of us working in health care are reminded that the health sector itself is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.  As a matter of fact, recent studies estimate that health care activities are responsible for close to five per cent of Canada’s annual carbon footprint.

Curbing Climate Change with Virtual Care

However, awareness of this issue remains low among Canadian adults.  The most recent data from the 2021 Canadian Digital Health Survey show that while the vast majority (84 per cent) of Canadians are concerned about climate change, only 38 per cent are aware of health care’s contribution to increased greenhouse gas emissions.  This gap signals a great opportunity to increase awareness and encourage clinicians, patients and their families to consider alternative modes of health care delivery that are more environmentally sustainable — especially as Canada is one of the fifty countries that has committed to developing climate resilient and low-carbon, sustainable health systems.

One such opportunity is the use of virtual care where appropriate and available. While in-person visits are necessary for some health needs, other appointments can be carried out virtually, such as prescription renewals, obtaining a diagnostic test result, or simply asking a health-related question. On average, Canadians travel about 16 km to see their primary health care provider. Replacing an in-person visit with a virtual one for these types of appointments cuts out the travel emissions that would have been associated with these journeys.  In addition to environmental savings, virtual care offers benefits to patients in terms of cost (in gas, parking and dependent care) and time savings (e.g., lost productivity), along with added convenience. When extrapolated to the larger Canadian population, these savings can add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some environmentally sustainable initiatives are challenging to implement, especially when citizens and businesses are asked to consider changes to their jobs, higher taxes and/or increased costs. It is rare to find an initiative that offers lower emissions and increased cost efficiency and convenience. However, virtual care often presents such a win-win scenario. Increasing awareness of these benefits for clinicians and Canadians can drive adoption of virtual care to new highs. The data seem to support this viewpoint: knowing that virtual care can reduce health care’s greenhouse gas emissions, 69 per cent of Canadians would be more likely to choose a virtual visit.

When we think about the future of health care, we need to consider health outcomes for individuals, populations and the planet itself. While virtual care is not intended to be a panacea, when it comes to helping to curb greenhouse gas emissions, it may be just what the doctor ordered.

Thank you to Waldo Beauséjour (Canada Health Infoway) and Nicole Simms (Centre for Sustainable Health Systems, University of Toronto) for their contributions to this post.

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About the author
Bobby Gheorghiu

Bobby Gheorghiu

Bobby Gheorghiu works with stakeholders in academia, private and public sectors to develop and monitor performance targets for initiatives such as PrescribeIT®, Canada’s national e-prescribing service, to ensure widespread adoption of technology and to demonstrate tangible benefits of investments in digital health. He holds an MHSc in Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation from the University of Toronto.