The environmental benefits of virtual care utilization in Canada: An analysis of travel distance avoided and associated carbon reductions as reported in the Canada Health Infoway Canadian Digital Health Survey 2021: What Canadians Think

Proponents of virtual care have long touted its potential to improve access to and quality of care, and to produce cost and time savings for patients. More recently, the potential environmental benefits of virtual care have also garnered attention. These benefits derive most demonstrably from the reduction in patient travel (for primary care and specialist care) and its associated reduction in carbon emissions (and resultant harms1), though in the longer term they may also arise in relation to virtual care’s potential to reduce facility size and improve health outcomes. While the latter benefits are difficult to quantify at present, there is a growing number of studies that seek to measure the reduction in emissions due to avoided travel from the use of virtual care. This focus is warranted given that transportation of people and goods contributes significantly to overall health sector carbon (CO2) emissions. The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom attributes approximately 9% of its total carbon footprint to “personal travel,” which includes trips made by employees (4%), patients (5%), and visitors (1%) to care facilities2. Reducing unnecessary journeys represents an important pathway to reducing personal travel emissions, and virtual care clearly has a key role to play in this process, though as Purohit et al note in their recent systematic review of the evidence on the carbon footprint of telemedicine, the clinical and environmental benefits of virtual care must be considered in relation to the local context3. Here, we report estimates for the environmental benefits associated with virtual care services utilization in Canada based on the results of the Canada Health Infoway Canadian Digital Health Survey 2021: What Canadians Think. We then consider how these benefits can be maintained and maximized in the Canadian context, particularly as the country adjusts to the rapidly-shifting virtual care landscape wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.