Posted: 20 Jan. 2022 7 min. read

Virtual health thrived during COVID…can it help save the planet?

By Elizabeth Baca, M.D., M.P.A., specialist leader, and Urvi Shah, senior manager, Deloitte Consulting, LLP

At the recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, the US and nearly 50 other countries committed to develop climate-resilient and low-carbon health systems in response to growing evidence that a warming planet is having dire consequences on health.1

When COVID-19 took hold in the spring of 2020, many patients stayed away from medical facilities for fear of being exposed to the virus. At the time, virtual health was still finding its footing in the US. It has since become an indispensable tool for helping patients and clinicians stay connected. But we believe virtual health offers something much more than just convenience for patients and clinicians. We think it could play a significant role in reducing health care’s large carbon footprint,2 while creating a level of care that is more adaptable and resilient.  

As noted in previous blogs, the health care sector is responsible for a significant amount greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Hospitals are typically large buildings that are open for business 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These structures typically have sophisticated heating, cooling, and ventilation systems, medical and laboratory equipment, sterilization, refrigeration, laundry, as well as food service. The health care sector is responsible for about 8.5% of all greenhouse emissions in the US.3 Some estimates put it closer to 10%. Unlike other industries, however, health care organizations are not required to report their emissions.

Here’s a look at the impact increased use of virtual health could have on health systems, patients, and the environment:

  • Less windshield time: Increased use of virtual health could mean patients spend less time looking through the windshields of their cars. In addition, health system and health plan employees might gain some work efficiencies by reducing windshield time traveling to work or from site to site. Fewer cars on the road could also have a positive impact on the air we breathe. As Elizabeth noted in her blog last summer, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service helped to reduce car emissions by boosting the use of telehealth monitoring, remote diagnostics, and virtual appointments. Allowing patients to receive care virtually can translate to dramatically fewer driving miles. Ambulatory visit carbon intensity is a metric that measures the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with a given outpatient visit.5 A typical patient travels an estimated 17 miles for in-person appointments.6
  • Less waste: Keeping people healthy and out of a medical facility is far less carbon intensive than treating them in person. Keeping patients out of a medical facility can also reduce the spread of viruses and can cut the waste typically generated during in-person visits. Fewer patients in the medical facility means fewer resources are needed and less red-bag waste needs to be incinerated.
  • Less risk: Imagine an asthmatic patient who is scheduled for an in-person visit with their physician. On the day of the appointment, the air quality index has reached a dangerously high range. The doctor’s office suggests a virtual visit so that the patient isn’t exposed to high heat and pollutants in the air. Alternatively, integrated digital messaging could be automatically sent to such high-risk patients when certain thresholds are met. When air quality is poor, these patients might also be screened for symptoms and prompted to follow up virtually to keep their asthma under control. 

We have only begun to realize the potential of virtual care

Virtual health visits are not intended to recreate the exact experience of an in-person visit. Instead, they offer an opportunity to rethink traditional care models. We are still in the early stages of understanding the full potential of virtual health and there is great opportunity to think about co-benefits virtual health offers as part of a comprehensive climate strategy. Digital devices that can be used at home can increase the effectiveness of virtual visits. Connected blood pressure devices and pulse oximeters, for example, could help clinicians more accurately assess patients without having to meet with them in person. In the future, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) could replace video visits. Patients, for example, might put on a VR headset or AR glasses to actually feel like they are sharing physical space with a doctor.

As hospitals and health systems adjust to this new future, we are hopeful that virtual health will continue to be used as an alternative to some in-patient visits. Virtual health, as part of an enterprise-wide strategy, could help health systems keep more patients out of their facilities, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve the  air we breathe.

This publication contains general information only and Deloitte is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor. Deloitte shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person who relies on this publication.


1COP26 Health Programme: Country Commitments, World Health Organization, November 2021

2Patient transport greenhouse gas emissions from outpatient care at an integrated health care system in the Northwestern United States, 2015–2020, ScienceDirect, August 1, 2021

3Telemedicine came to the rescue during COVID-19, could it help climate change, too? MobiHealthNews/HIMSS Media, April 23, 2021

4Telehealth virtual visits can be a tool to fight climate change, American Medical Association, September 1, 2021

5Telehealth virtual visits can be a tool to fight climate change, American Medical Association, September 1, 2021

6Study shows telehealth is eco-friendly, HealthLeaders, July 13, 2021

Return to the Health Forward home page to discover more insights from our leaders.

Subscribe to the Health Forward blog via email