Telemedicine: Helping Consumers and the Environment

According to an American Consumer Institute study, over the next 10 years, broadband applications will decrease greenhouse gas emissions by one billion tons.  That study attributed this environmental savings to several broadband applications, including telecommuting, distance learning, teleconferencing and e-materialization.  This ConsumerGram takes a second look at one of the more promising and fast growing applications, telemedicine, and it touches on several new ways that these applications can help both consumers and the environment.

 

 

Telemedicine Matters

            In 2005, the United States spent over $2 trillion for healthcare, which represents around 16% of Gross Domestic Product.  Despite the tremendous amount of resources devoted to health care, consumers are concerned with rising medical costs, access to services and quality issues, especially as they relate to medical errors.  Telemedicine can address some of these concerns by using information technologies to facilitate the practice of medicine. 

 

Telemedicine utilizes broadband applications to connect to patients, doctors, hospitals, patient records and vital statistics in order to facilitate cost-effective health monitoring, collaboration, and the exchange of medical data.  As one author writes, “Telemedicine rides on the back of broadband, and the most critical prerequisite for success will involve spreading high-speed broadband to every corner of America-especially geographically remote communities that tend to lag behind in both Internet access and healthcare.” (Neuberger, p.17)   As a result, telemedicine applications are used to diagnose, treat and monitor patients’ medical conditions.  The potential benefits of telemedicine include saving lives, increasing quality, reducing medical cost and increase access to medical services. 

 

Besides these important benefits, telemedicine has an added advantage in that it is environmentally friendly.  Telemedicine applications can decrease travel, facilitate e-materialization and decrease the need for buildings associated with the provision of heath care, all of which would lead to a decrease greenhouse gas emissions, while decreasing medical costs. 

 

 

Decreasing in Travel

Telemedicine applications can significantly reduce the amount of travel associated with providing healthcare services.  Telemedicine and information technology “will make distance irrelevant and medical personnel will be able to provide medical services regardless of their location.” (Herrick, p.16)  In other words, telemedicine applications can decrease the need for travel in various ways.  For the patient, the use of telemedicine can lead to fewer doctors’ office and emergency room visits, as well as fewer and a reduced duration of hospital stays.  This can be especially desirable for disabled patients for whom travel is difficult.  The reduction in hospital stays means that friends and family will need to make fewer trips when visiting a patient in the hospital.  Telemedicine also decreases the need for medical personnel to make home visits.  In addition, technology can be used to provide training to health professionals over the Internet, thus avoiding the need to travel.  For instance, medical consultations can be done over the Internet, sparing patients the time and expense to travel.  This can be particularly important to patients in rural areas requiring consultations with specialists in far away teaching hospitals and medical centers. 

 

Here are a few documented examples of how telemedicine can reduce office and hospital visits, thereby reducing medical costs and sparing the environment of the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with travel:

·         Kaiser Permanente has found that allowing enrollees to email questions to their doctors has decreased primary care visits by 7 to 10 percent. (Herrick)

·         A study of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease found that of those monitored from home only 49 percent were readmitted compared to 67% who were not monitored. (Herrick)

·         A study of remote monitoring for congestive heart failure (CHF) found that, over a six month period, monitored patients required only half as many hospitalizations compared to the non-monitored patients. (Herrick) 

·         A Veterans Administration study of monitoring found a 40 percent decrease in emergency room visits and a 63 percentage decrease in hospital admissions. (Neuberger) 

·         Medtronic, which developed a wireless broadband enabled device, had a reduction in hospitalizations of 41 percent in the group using its device. (Neuberger)

·         Another study found that remote monitoring decreased the length of hospital stays from 14.8 days to 10.9 days, office visits by 10 percent and home visits decreased by 65 percent. (Stachura)

 

Thus, by reducing the need to travel, telemedicine can significantly decrease the amount of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that would have occurred, and it can do this while increasing quality and decreasing cost of care.

 

 

Increasing E-materialization

            The Internet has had a tremendous impact on delivering goods without the actual physical production and transportation of the good.  This dematerialization, which also is referred to as e-materialization, has had significant impact on energy use and pollution.  There are many ways that telemedicine can use e-materialization to not only cut cost and increase the quality of life of individuals but also to decrease pollution.  Just like airline e-tickets and online banking statements reduce the need for paper document, telemedicine e-statements too can save energy and natural resources, as well as reduce air and water pollution.  That is important, considering that Americans use nearly 700 pounds of paper (per capita) each year.  In fact, electronic medical records, electronic referrals, electronic prescriptions and electronic health insurance claims can all greatly reduce the amount of paper used in the health care system.  In addition, medical directories can be stored on the Internet, reducing the need for printing which decreases the need for paper and ink.  Also, information can be sent to patients and medical personnel over the Internet, getting information to patients quicker and more conveniently than before.  Finally, X-rays can be sent electronically thus eliminating the resources used in printing and eliminating the pollution which this production causes. Thus, telemedicine has the potential to significantly reduce the use of paper as well as the chemicals used to produce X-rays.

 

 

Decreasing Building Space 

            Telemedicine applications can have a significant impact on the need for building space.  As the amount of building space decreases the pollution that would have occurred to build that space is eliminated.  Since heating, air conditioning, lighting as well as other resources are used in a completed building, fewer buildings will decrease the need for these resources and the pollution they create.  The use of electronic medical records can greatly decrease the space needed to store patient records.  Also a decrease in hospital stays as well as emergency room visits can lead to a more efficient use of hospital space.   The decrease in office visits will lead to smaller waiting room area and fewer examining rooms.  Electronic medical records will decrease the need for storage.  These will lead to smaller more efficient doctor offices.  Thus telemedicine can reduce the building space needed for medical services and the pollution that these buildings cause.  It has been estimated that eliminating 100 square feet of office space will save 1metric ton of emissions annually. (Romm)

 

  

Conclusion

            Telemedicine is one of the more promising broadband applications, but it is dependent upon development of faster and more ubiquitous high-speed services, and software applications that can link patients, patient records, doctors and medical facilities.  Telemedicine has the ability to save lives, increase the quality of life of patients, while improving the overall quality of health care.  It can accomplish all this while reducing the cost of health care, which is a national priority.  As this ConsumerGram has discussed, telemedicine is also environmentally friendly.  Telemedicine applications can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing travel, e-materialization and building space.  That makes it a win-win for the environment and consumers.

 

 

Suggested Readings

Joseph P. Fuhr Jr. and Stephen Pociask, “Broadband Services: Economic and Environmental Benefits,” The American Consumer Institute, Oct. 2007.

 

Devon Herrick, “Convenient Care and Telemedicine,” National Center for Policy Analysis, Nov. 2007.

 

Neal Neuberger, “Advancing Healthcare through Broadband: Opening up a World of Possibilities, Internet Innovation Alliance, no date.

 

Joseph Romm, “The Internet and the New Energy Economy,” Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, Global Environment and Technology Foundation, 2002.

 

Max E. Stachura and Elena V. Khasanshina, “Telehomecare and remote Monitoring: An Outcomes Overview, the Advanced Medical Technology Association, no date.

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