A doctor looking at a laptop during a video call.

A Boon to the Health of Patients and the Planet

Virtual healthcare visits have become the norm during the pandemic, and that's good news not just for people but also the environment.


At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us had to quickly transition our routine activities to an online format. This included doctor’s appointments, which have been offered over the phone or through video calls by many doctors across Canada for the past two and a half years.

While COVID-19 restrictions have now eased across Canada, a new study from Western University has found that virtual doctor’s visits offer benefits beyond the pandemic. By analyzing data from patients in Ontario who had attended at least one virtual care visit, the study highlighted how this online format both reduces carbon dioxide emissions and helps patients save money.

The study was led by Blayne Welk, an associate professor surgery at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and urologist at St Joseph’s Health Care London, and published in JAMA Network Open.

Before the pandemic, less than 2% of doctor’s appointments in Canada were held in a virtual format. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, however, this number increased to 70 to 80% at the height of the pandemic, and currently makes up about 50 to 60% of all doctor’s visits.

While some benefits of virtual doctor’s appointments are clear — for example, virtual visits may be more accessible for some patients — Welk and collaborators were interested in learning about the environmental and financial benefits as well. By no longer traveling to doctors’ offices, patients may be saving themselves money that would have been spent on gas or transit while also reducing the burden on the environment.

To learn more, the researchers behind the study gathered data from more than 10 million patients in Ontario who had attended 63 million virtual care visits between March 2020 and December 2021. This data came from administrative healthcare databases across the province.

Using the patients’ postal codes and the postal codes of their primary care doctors, the researchers showed that patients in Ontario avoided 3.2 billion kilometres of travel by visiting their doctors online during the pandemic. They then estimated how many of these trips would have been carried out by car, electric car, or public transit, finding that virtual visits resulted in a reduction of 545 to 658 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions.

Virtual doctors’ visits also helped patients save money that would have been spent on travel. In total, the researchers estimated savings of $569 to $733 million in expenses related to gasoline, parking, and public transit. If the time spent commuting (and therefore not working) was also taken into account, these savings would likely be even higher.

“Virtual care has become an important part of the healthcare system in Ontario, and in addition to improved patient convenience, it results in significant environmental and financial benefits for patients,” Welk said in a press release.

“The financial and environmental benefits of virtual care will likely continue beyond the pandemic.”

Going forward, the researchers hope that doctors across Canada will continue offering virtual visits as an option for their patients.

While some patients may prefer visiting their doctors in person, virtual visits offer many benefits for both the environment and patients.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.