Telehealth has expanded significantly in the last two years. But has the shift in the way patient care is conducted improved sustainability efforts? This blog will detail the evolutionary step in healthcare and resulting repercussions. The use of technology to access professional healthcare has accelerated worldwide. According to a Precedence Research report on the global telehealth market, telehealth had reached a size of $40.3 billion in 2020 and is now on pace to grow at a CAGR of over 18%. As such, the market may be worth $224 billion by 2030. This shows that the massive increase in telehealth is just here to stay, but is expected to grow.
Patient & Clinician IMpact
As expected telehealth has improved typical practices for particular patients –– including those with mobility limitations and compromised immunity. Those needing regular visits due to chronic conditions are the patients who stand to benefit the most in terms of time saved. Many telehealth providers now offer specialist services in areas like chronic diseases, behavioral health, and reproductive concerns. This means, that patients can now easily access specialized care from anywhere, without needing to settle for a general practitioner or making the in-person trip. Aside from this, many of the upsides of expanded telehealth is accessibility. For instance, one benefit that many have experienced is the ease of group consultations and appointments. Clinicians now have the ability –– with patient consent –– to loop in family members who may live nowhere near a given patient such that everyone who needs to be updated on care can be. These are just a few examples, but it speaks to the wider impact of advancing telehealth beyond just certain kinds of patients.
It's also important that we remember that the move toward telehealth impacted healthcare professionals as much as it does patients and their families. Specifically, clinicians and the companies they work for are gaining access to improved tech tools, diagnostic tools, and expanded resources for treating mental health. As discussed in an article on IoT and connected devices in life sciences by Caitlin Root, the adoption of telehealth has also ushered in the use of complementary devices which help record intimate patient details. Consequently, clinicians are able to make more accurate diagnoses and recommendations despite the distance. Ultimately, all of these stand to improve the quality of telehealth moving forward –– adding to the reasons to expect an even greater expansion of telehealth.
Effect on Healthcare staffing
Aside from empowering currently employed healthcare workers, telehealth also has a distinct benefit for broader staffing concerns. For starters, telehealth has been critical in stemming physician shortages in rural communities. Through a live telehealth feed, remote clinics or healthcare centers can tap the services of a specialist that may otherwise be impossible to reach. Case in point, the North Dakota Telepharmacy Project bridged a licensed pharmacist with local pharmacy technicians. Through this, patients' needs were met despite the lack of a local pharmacist and it even created over 80 new jobs as pharmacy technician posts were better supported. Since some healthcare workers are also reluctant to fill posts in far-flung communities, the prospect of telecommuting may be more appealing during recruitment.
Similarly, telehealth’s ability to maximize specialists is also improving overall performance and engagement in other fields like emergency medical services (EMS). Since 2020, EMS studies on ResearchGate reveal that demand for such medical services has increased by almost 50% across the board. Unfortunately, EMS staffing shortages make it virtually impossible to satisfy demand. With telehealth as a force multiplier, though, a single EMS crew can cater to more than one case. While one member remotely aids a patient with low acuity, the rest can be treating another patient in person. This helps streamline crew tasks and prevent feelings of burnout. Interestingly, alongside these benefits to patients and providers, there is also a massive sustainability factor to consider.
the sustainability factor
There is reason to believe that sustainability will ultimately be looked at as another benefit of telehealth expansion. Indeed, while more accessible and high-quality care is the main focal point, the environment too could be better off as we move further into an era of virtual care.
Perhaps the most obvious of the benefits with regard to sustainability is the reduced emissions from cutting travel time for patients and clinicians alike. Basically, with fewer in-person medical visits, there are fewer emissions relating to such visits. One localized study cited on HealthLeaders Media found that having steadily risen between 2015 and 2019, greenhouse gas emissions from ambulatory visits nearly halved in 2020 –– while the similar drop in the carbon density of outpatient visits represented the continuation of an existing trend. Not all of the reductions in health-related travel will have been brought about by telehealth. But the ability to set up virtual visits has certainly brought about positive change in this regard. It may not seem like much, but when you think about how many people are typically in and out of a given doctor's office or hospital on any single day, you can begin to recognize the potential impact of the change.
A difference is also being made when it comes to some of the other duties of medical practitioners –– including attendance of advisory boards, frequent committee meetings, and even much larger events like conferences. All of these types of events tend to involve high-emission travel, with clinicians, academic experts, hospital administrators, and the like sometimes converging from around the country (or even the world). One somewhat prescient Lancet article from early 2020 pointed to speakers doing their talks virtually as one aspect that can help build carbon-neutral conferences. As a result of the normalization of virtual practices in healthcare and health industries, this practice has since become more common than ever before.
The aforementioned likelihood that we’ll be seeing expanded capabilities and improved quality in telehealth will only further amplify these positive changes, as well as the reduced emissions they lead to. However, sustainability has never just been about direct, or indeed indirect, emissions. There is also material to consider. The phenomenal, otherwise largely unavoidable material waste of medical facilities can also be reduced as telehealth continues to expand. Just consider the single-use paper and plastic products that are consumed during patient visits and in-person practices. While these will of course still be necessary when in-person visits occur, there should be far less material waste if even a small fraction of appointments "go virtual" moving forward.
It shouldn’t be assumed that telehealth is all perks and benefits; there are certainly downsides for providers and consumers alike, and many will undoubtedly yearn for returns to the "old" normal. Indeed, in all likelihood what we're really moving toward is a hybrid care model whereby people can choose whether to pursue healthcare virtually or in person. Nevertheless, the broad scope of telehealth’s benefits for man and the environment can no longer be overlooked.
About the Author: Ben Davey is a full-time writer who is passionate about covering global healthcare. When he's not writing about the medical industry, Ben likes to work with his local community center's universal health initiatives.