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Why a Telemedicine Group Launched a Task Force on Climate Change

You might not immediately make the connection, but telemedicine could play a major role in fighting climate change, according to recent research. And with a new task force, the American Telemedicine Association is spearheading an effort to maximize the impact.

Here’s an unusual way of thinking about telemedicine: as a potential antidote to climate change.

That’s the ambition behind a new task force launched by the American Telemedicine Association to look at telemedicine’s impact on climate change, both throughout the sector and within ATA. The task force will look for ways to encourage healthcare practices that lead to “green” outcomes and will develop guidelines and tools for members to reduce their own carbon footprints by reducing travel.

ATA volunteers will pursue two projects under the initiative: designing an “energy-efficient small medical practice of the future” and developing a virtual urgent-care system.

In a study published earlier this year, researchers at the University of California, Davis—which has used telemedicine facilities to enable its doctors to consult with patients remotely via video since 1992—reported that telemedicine saved patients who would have otherwise traveled to UC Davis Health in Sacramento a collective $3 million in costs, nine years in travel time, and 5 million miles. It also produced  significant environmental benefits, saving nearly 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, 50 metric tons of carbon monoxide, 3.7 metric tons of nitrogen oxides, and 5.5 metric tons of volatile organic compounds. (All those trips not taken add up, apparently.)

“Our findings confirm the benefits of telemedicine in terms of real savings to patients and to the environment,” Dr. James Marcin, chief of the UC Davis Division of Pediatric Critical Care Medicine and the author of the study, said of the findings at the time, according to MobiHealth News. “Because telemedicine is cheaper and more convenient for patients in remote areas, they are more likely to seek medical care. Many patients do not have the time or resources to access healthcare many miles from home.”

The initiative reflects a long-term interest of someone else with ties to the UC Davis medical system—ATA’s current president, Dr. Peter Yellowlees. A clinical psychiatry professor, Yellowlees wrote about the topic in 2010 in an article titled “Telemedicine Can Make Healthcare Greener” for the academic publication Telemedicine and e-Health.

“Telemedicine and health information technology help save time, energy, raw materials (such as paper and plastic), and fuel, thereby lowering the carbon footprint of the health industry,” Yellowlees wrote, according to mHealth Intelligence. “By implementing green practices, for instance, by engaging in carbon credit programs, the health industry could benefit financially as well as reduce its negative impact on the health of our planet.”

Yellowlees is heading up the ATA task force, which will report its progress to members at the organization’s 2018 annual meeting.

(iStock/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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