As COVID-19 restrictions ease across the country and the promise of spring gives us hope that better days are coming, this year’s World Health Day theme is especially relevant. If this pandemic has taught us nothing else, it has underscored the interconnectedness of health on an individual, national and international scale. The choices we make not only impact our own well-being, but that of our communities — and our planet.
When we think about the role that the health sector plays in keeping humans and the planet healthy, we find a complex relationship between human and ecological well-being. According to a study published in 2018, health care is responsible for 4.6 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions and more than 200,000 tonnes of other pollutants, resulting in 23,000 years of life lost every year due to disability or early death. These numbers are significant, and organizations like the Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care are working toward building greener health policies and practices. We need to do better at creating an environmentally sustainable health system.
The acceleration of virtual visits and digital health is one very promising approach. During the pandemic, virtual visits and digital health have been used extensively to provide care to Canadians, while avoiding in-person appointments where possible and appropriate. According to an analysis by Canada Health Infoway, the total estimated carbon emissions savings resulting from the use of virtual care was approximately 286,000 metric tonnes in 2020 alone. That’s the equivalent to taking more than 62,000 passenger vehicles off the road for one year, or the amount of carbon sequestered by 4.7 million tree seedlings grown for a decade.
Eliminating travel time to and from appointments is not only good for the environment, but it also saves patients time and money. Canadians saved an estimated 90 million hours from not having to arrange for care for a dependent, not having to take time off work and not having to travel to attend in-person appointments. The estimated total financial costs saved by Canadians as a result of using virtual care were $6.1 billion in 2020. Moreover, the convenience of virtual care contributes to the well-being of Canadians, who cite it as the top reason they would continue to choose virtual care visits over in-person visits in the future.
As we reflect on Our Planet, Our Health this World Health Day, let’s continue to explore digital health solutions and other tools that will help Canadians and their health care providers to keep ourselves and the planet in good health.
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