A study of two virtual care pilot programs found that virtual and hybrid models of healthcare delivery can significantly reduce climate impacts, including an average 35% reduction in water consumption and a 25% reduction in carbon emissions. These reductions hold great promise, as the healthcare industry currently accounts for 8.5% of U.S. carbon emissions and 7% of commercial water consumption.
Researchers at Blue Shield of California and Anthesis Group studied two pilots, one of which was initially set up to serve communities impacted by the devastating 2018 Camp Fire. They analyzed the impact of virtual and hybrid care on provider and staff commutes, patient travel, electricity use, natural gas use, wastewater flow, and medical waste.
"Blue Shield's research shows that virtual care is an impactful way to reduce the healthcare industry's environmental footprint, while still providing high-quality care," said Antoinette Mayer, vice president of corporate citizenship, who leads Blue Shield of California’s sustainability efforts. "There is also a clear and urgent need for a more aggressive and strategic plan to reduce the climate impact of the healthcare industry. While this will be an immense effort, it is one Blue Shield is committed to lead on because there is no ‘Planet B.’”
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the healthcare industry, and virtual tools became a key method of delivery. As hospitals, providers, and health plans continue to evolve, virtual care should be seen as a low-carbon alternative or supplement to in-person care delivery, when appropriate. Virtual care has a host of other benefits, including increased access and shorter wait times.
As the healthcare industry continues to find ways to mitigate climate impacts, the researchers recommend the following action items:
- Encourage the use of virtual care when appropriate and feasible
- Collect data on resource consumption (electricity, water, waste) to measure environmental footprints
- Support innovation for climate-smart models of care
- Foster collaboration among providers, payers, administrators to act on climate
Blue Shield continues to expand its virtual care offerings, including the launch of Virtual Blue, a virtual-first health benefits plan, earlier this year.
To learn more about the study, read Blue Shield’s white paper, "Advancing Climate Action with Virtual Health Care."
In 2021, Blue Shield of California announced NextGen sustainability goals to help improve the health of individuals, families, and communities through better environmental stewardship. The nonprofit health plan is committed to leading the way to a more sustainable future for the healthcare industry.