How Can Value-Based Care Reduce Healthcare Waste?

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What’s one factor that separates the United States, China, and the European Union from the rest of the world?

They are the top three contributors to healthcare’s total global carbon footprint. In the U.S., the healthcare system alone contributes up to 10 percent to our total carbon emissions.

The effects of healthcare waste on our population are ironic. Sadly, the very resources used to help our healthcare system run efficiently, including fossil fuels, contribute to environmental factors that can lead to disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 13 million deaths around the world each year occur because of environmental factors such as pollution, illness, and contamination.

Burning fossil fuels at the current rate is not only devastating for the environment but is also hideously expensive. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the effects of burning excessive amounts of fossil fuels, namely pollution and climate change, cost the healthcare system over $800 billion a year. These environmental impacts disproportionately affect patients in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, who foot a significant portion of that $800 billion. This creates a vicious cycle of ever-increasing healthcare costs generated by illnesses that would not have otherwise existed.

Despite these circumstances, healthcare has lagged ‌in implementing wide-scale change. However, value-based care may help address these challenges.

Value-based care‌ prioritizes cost-effective utilization of high-quality healthcare to help patients avoid unnecessary emergency department visits. Providers within risk-based arrangements may win shared savings by managing healthcare expenses and saving money for the healthcare system.

Hopefully, by taking an environmentally friendly approach to care delivery, physicians in accountable care organizations (ACOs) can simultaneously enhance care for their patients while reducing the environmental impact of that care.

How Can Value-Based Care Help Reduce Healthcare’s Environmental Impact

Risk-based arrangements aim to reduce unnecessary or duplicative testing and interventions that do not add value to the patient’s health. Thus, these components of value-based care may also help reduce healthcare carbon emissions while also improving patient care.

Telehealth

Along with helping physicians keep their schedules full and reducing the number of missed or late appointments, virtual visits save patients the drive to the doctor’s office. As a result, virtual visits can help reduce healthcare-related carbon emissions. A study published in the Journal of Climate Change and Health on telehealth visits in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic estimated that, on average, virtual visits saved 9,604 tons of carbon emissions from patient transportation to these visits. Alternatively, telehealth only generated 55 tons of carbon emissions from patients’ use of electricity. In value-based care, accessibility is everything. Making virtual care an option available at your practice can save carbon emissions and increase accessibility for busy patients. In addition to telehealth, there are several other often overlooked patient-facing platforms that can make your practice an attractive care option.

Annual Wellness Visits (AWVs) & Care Coordination

As Glenn Abrahamsen, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Business Analytics at Privia Health noted, AWVs are a great opportunity for physicians to catch illnesses before they escalate into costly immediate care or hospital visit with an ambulance ride. In a study of healthcare centers’ carbon footprint, an acute care center and ICU generate roughly 45 kgs and 138 kgs (about 100 to 300 lbs) of carbon emissions per hospitalization day, respectively, depending on staff allocation. Improving care coordination between healthcare providers and care teams can both enhance patient care and reduce the likelihood of preventable hospital admissions.

Actionable Analytics

In value-based care, data is critical. Population health analytics can help providers reduce waste by reducing duplicative testing and the physical waste that accompanies it, such as single-use needles, cotton, and bandages. Although 85 percent of healthcare waste is non-toxic, the remaining 15 percent can cause serious illness if not disposed of properly. The 85 percent of healthcare waste disposed of by incineration or in landfills contributes to that same pollution that can make patients sick. Utilizing healthcare technology, including a robust electronic health record (EHR), that structures the massive amounts of data generated by caring for patients is key to reducing care gaps and preventing costly, unnecessary treatments. In fact, overtreatment and low-value care alone cost the healthcare system between $75.7 billion to $101.2 billion a year.

Investing in the Right EHR

While it may sound paradoxical, tech upgrades may actually help reduce climate change. An integrated EHR can compile patient data to facilitate more efficient monitoring of high-risk or chronically ill patients on a single platform. Such monitoring can help identify care gaps that can lead to expensive hospital readmissions. The key is finding an EHR that works for you and your practice. According to PA and Director of Clinical Workflow Solutions, Alison Broadbent, the “right” EHR for you and your practice will be the one that helps “reduce your daily frustrations — or pain points — instead of contributing to or extending them.” By investing in the right EHR, you’ll have a technology platform that will both help reduce your practice’s environmental impact and lessen burnout.

Thus, value-based care can provide a framework for proactive, sustainable care that can reduce the impact of healthcare on climate change. By increasing the value of the care provided, physicians can reduce their impact on the environment while also improving a patient’s care outcomes.

The healthcare industry, as implied in the name, has a social responsibility to take the lead in making lasting changes for the health of all patients. Using ‌tools and value-based care initiatives can both reduce our environmental impact and improve the care of our patients.

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