Background: Following the Riyadh Declaration, digital health technologies were prioritized in many countries to address the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital health apps for telemedicine and video consultations help reduce potential disease spread in routine health care, including follow-up care in orthopedic and trauma surgery. In addition to the satisfaction, efficiency, and safety of telemedicine, its economic and environmental effects are highly relevant to decision makers, particularly for the goal of reaching carbon neutrality of health care systems.
Objective: This study aims to provide the first comprehensive health economic and environmental analysis of video consultations in follow-up care after knee and shoulder interventions in an orthopedic and trauma surgery department of a German university hospital. The analysis is conducted from a societal perspective. We analyze both economic and environmental impacts of video consultations, taking into account the goal of carbon neutrality for the German health care system by 2030.
Methods: We conducted a prospective randomized controlled trial comparing follow-up care with digital health app video consultations (intervention group) to conventional face-to-face consultations in the clinic (control group). Economic impact included the analysis of travel and time costs and production losses. Examination of the environmental impact comprised the emissions of greenhouse gases, carbon monoxide, volatile hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and particulates, and the calculation of environmental costs. Sensitivity analysis included calculations with a higher cost per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent, which gives equal weight to the welfare of present and future generations.
Results: Data from 52 patients indicated that, from the patients' point of view, telemedicine helped reduce travel costs, time costs, and production losses, resulting in mean cost savings of €76.52 per video consultation. In addition, emissions of 11.248 kg of greenhouse gases, 0.070 kg of carbon monoxide, 0.011 kg of volatile hydrocarbons, 0.028 kg of nitrogen oxides, and 0.0004 kg of particulates could be saved per patient through avoided travel. This resulted in savings of environmental costs between €3.73 and €9.53 per patient.
Conclusions: We presented the first comprehensive analysis of economic and environmental effects of telemedicine in the follow-up care of patients in orthopedic and trauma surgery in Germany. Video consultations were found to reduce the environmental footprint of follow-up care; saved travel costs, travel time, and time costs for patients; and helped to lower production losses. Our findings can support the decision-making on the use of digital health during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, providing decision makers with data for both economic and environmental effects. Thanks to the pragmatic design of our study, our findings can be applied to a wide range of clinical contexts and potential digital health applications that substitute outpatient hospital visits with video consultations.
Trial registration: German Clinical Trials Register DRKS00023445; https://tinyurl.com/4pcvhz4n.
Keywords: carbon neutrality; digital health; environmental impact; health economics; net-zero; orthopedic; sustainability; telemedicine; trauma surgery; video consultations.
©Jennifer Muschol, Martin Heinrich, Christian Heiss, Alher Mauricio Hernandez, Gero Knapp, Holger Repp, Henning Schneider, Ulrich Thormann, Johanna Uhlar, Kai Unzeitig, Christian Gissel. Originally published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (https://www.jmir.org), 24.11.2022.