Northwest Permanente study shows telehealth cuts carbon footprint from outpatients by half

Headshot of Imelda Dacones, MD
Imelda Dacones, MD

New Northwest Permanente research finds that telehealth use led to a steep reduction in the carbon footprint generated by a large, integrated health care system over the past 6 years, Becker’s Hospital Review and other media reported recently.

Led by Imelda Dacones, MD, president and CEO, and Colin Cave, MD, medical director of External Affairs, Government Relations, and Community Health, both of Northwest Permanente, the research published in The Journal of Climate Change and Health is the first large-scale study in the United States to show that telehealth use dramatically reduces health care’s carbon footprint.

Conducted in collaboration with physician researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Massachusetts General Hospital, the peer-reviewed study is also a first step in identifying how the transition to telehealth can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and costs.

Headshot of Colin Cave, MD
Colin Cave, MD

To capture the climate-related impact of the transition to telehealth, researchers developed a new metric called ambulatory-visit carbon intensity, which measures the total greenhouse-gas emissions associated with an outpatient visit. The research showed that ambulatory-visit carbon intensity decreased 51% between 2015 and 2020 in Kaiser Permanente’s Northwest region, with the greatest reduction occurring in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a higher number of virtual visits that year.

The new metric provides the first standard way to monitor and compare environmental performance within and among outpatient health care facilities. It also allows health care organizations to compute the savings not only of reduced mileage, but also the lower carbon footprint of facilities that would otherwise need to stay open. It also will make it easier to conduct similar studies at scale.

Note: To read the entire article see Becker’s Hospital Review, and related coverage in AMA News, Medical Travel & Digital Health News, MHealthIntelligence, HealthITNews, and HealthLeaders.