Digital health benefits extend beyond the individual, and even beyond the lab. These innovative technologies also impact sustainability, which is why we believe it’s worth talking about how digital health can make the earth healthier, too. PRA works to create digital health solutions that benefit patients while staying mindful of how these new practices affect the environment.
This year’s Earth Day theme is Restore Our Earth™, which focuses on natural processes, emerging green technologies, and innovative thinking that can restore the world’s ecosystems. From a CRO lens, we’re looking at how digital health and innovative tools can continue to impact patients’ lives through sustainability.
Why Is Sustainability an Issue in the Health and Pharmaceutical Industry?
Unfortunately, the healthcare industry is a major contributor when it comes to harmful emissions. According to a 2019 study, the industry is responsible for 10% of carbon emissions and 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Greenhouse gas emissions also rose 30% between 2006 and 2016 in the healthcare industry alone.
The environment can play a large role in patient health and wellness, so it’s important for us to pay attention to how we impact that space globally. Pollution causes 4.2 million deaths each year through heart disease, stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, and lung cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Promoting sustainability in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries is similar to treating the source rather than only the symptoms of a disease. Without focusing on sustainability and our environmental impact, we only treat what arises from preventable ecological issues. We have an obligation to find solutions to the environmental issues our industry faces and contributes to so that we can improve people’s lives beyond creating new drug treatments. Sustainability reaches farther than a single person, and improving our global footprint can help us prevent diseases and create better solutions for patients around the world.
How Can Digital Health Solve Some of These Problems?
Digital health eliminates many factors that contribute to environmental and systemic harm. Decentralized trials and mobile health technologies such as telehealth and wearables reduce the need to travel to clinical trial sites and appointments. This may also eliminate or reduce the need to manufacture certain products that are no longer used at clinical trial sites. This alone can minimize the production of paper, plastic, and other products that contribute to waste and harm the environment.
Lowering Carbon Dioxide Emissions
Telemedicine and remote trials reduce in-person health visits by about 33% and emergency care visits by up to 11%. Decentralized trials allow for many traditional site visits to become virtual. They can collect patients’ data in real-time from the comfort of their own homes, cutting down on unnecessary travel to and from appointments.
Telemedicine can reduce carbon emissions by up to 70 times if we implement telehealth and remote clinical trials worldwide. Doing so also benefits people on an individual level, as many do not have access to trial sites. A lack of diversity in clinical trials can lead to inaccurate or incomplete data when only people who have the means to travel or live near a site can participate in a trial. Remote health solutions help diversity clinical research and ensure drug developers are able to collect data that is more representative of the world we live in.
Reducing Paper Consumption
Converting to electronic health records (EHRs) reduces the need for providers to print unnecessary paper forms and can help streamline many healthcare administrative processes.
The average patient record weighs about three pounds. A single facility may have hundreds or thousands of records, depending on the facility and patient capacity. That can easily become over a ton of paper used strictly for patient records.
Reducing paper consumption reduces carbon dioxide risks and reduces emissions from equipment used in deforestation, which leads to climate stabilization. For the healthcare industry, it also means a lower overall cost for supplies.
Studies show that just two hours spent in nature per week benefits health, and spending time outside in a cleaner environment can reduce the risk of certain diseases. Reducing paper consumption creates a world where more people can take advantage of better air and water quality and gives them more resources to get and stay healthier while offering simple solutions to improve their wellness.
Inequality is an ongoing issue in the healthcare industry. Marginalized communities are often excluded from studies and have a harder time accessing healthcare. That means that many drugs and treatments may not work for everyone who needs them because they’ve been studied in only a specific—often privileged—group.
Remote options help more people receive care. They reduce the need to travel to an appointment or clinical trial site for in-person visits, saving patients time. Medical professionals and researchers can mail supplies, like wearable devices, to people, so they can use them in their own homes rather than having to go to a site to have their blood drawn or vitals checked.
Decentralized trials help recognize some of the shortcomings in medical care up by making it possible for marginalized groups to be included in clinical research. Digital health innovations help us gather data from underrepresented communities who often do not get proper care due to discrimination, like low-income groups and LGBTQ people.
Prioritizing improved access and care for these groups also supports sustainability, as gender and racial inequality exposes people to different environmental factors that impact their health. By knowing people’s different health needs, we can treat people the way they need to be treated and not with a one-size-fits-all plan that continues to fail people globally. Digital healthcare makes it possible for people of many different backgrounds to participate in sustainability efforts by reducing the level of environmental control by a single industry or group.
Providing Better Care for People Who Need It Most
Often, people with chronic conditions do not get the care they need and may not immediately understand how a change in their health pattern can impact them. We see a similar issue with pregnancy, as childbirth remains a major cause of death, especially in developing countries.
Apps and other remote health monitoring systems allow people to take charge of their health by identifying patterns and changes. These tools can also provide suggestions for healthier habits that may improve a person’s quality of life, including tips for prenatal care or for chronic illnesses, daily step counts, nutrition information, and even meditation practices.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can deliver information targeted to these types of groups so that they get personalized care where they would have otherwise have to wait for an appointment. This personalized care, including combining different therapies and using apps to monitor a person’s individual health to adjust treatment accordingly, can help improve quality of life and may even reduce preventable illnesses, complications, and death.
What Do We Need to Do to Make Digital Health More Available?
Making digital health accessible means creating patient-centric solutions, like PRA’s Mobile Health Platform, one-touch consent, and remote patient monitoring tools that deliver data without extra effort on the patient’s part. We must continue testing new technology and stay attentive to patient needs when developing remote patient monitoring tools. Technologies that are convenient and easy to use will increase compliance and patient retention, ensuring clinical developers collect high-quality data.
We must also focus on making these tools accessible to underserved communities, like low-income, LGBTQ, black, brown, and indigenous groups, as well as those in remote areas who often have limited access to healthcare and clinical trials. PRA focuses on improving patient lives while finding ways to make health and pharmaceutical industry practices more sustainable so that we can contribute to the long-term health of communities and their surrounding environments.
PRA thinks beyond treating symptoms and works toward prevention—for patients and for our planet. We strive to increase global collaboration when it comes to creating new technology and practices so that more people can benefit across the world, especially where resources may not be readily available. Creating patient-centric solutions also means creating environmental solutions.
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