By Heather Janssen

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – The pandemic brought telemedicine to the forefront of healthcare, as its use surged 3,000% over the last year. Now some are asking, could it help combat climate change?

At many doctor’s offices, like Eric Ellis’ Lincoln Urgent Care, most patients are seen in person. But some rooms across the area sit empty, especially during a pandemic when minor things can be done online.

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“Lots of times there’s more of a screening thing – is this something to be concerned about?” said Ellis.

He says many follow-up appointments that don’t require a physical checkup are doable through telemedicine.

In many places, telemedicine has picked up speed. Over the last year, UC Davis’ director of sustainability, Colleen McCormick, said telemedicine hit new record highs.

“We had over a 3,000 percent increase over the last year,” McCormick said.

The virtual visits often add a level of comfort and convenience for both doctors and their patients – but it could aid another emergency.

“Climate change has become such a crisis,” said McCormick.

Telemedicine, many say, has the possibility of curbing the climate change crisis – even just a little bit. Less travel to and from appointments cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions. The new turning point comes as America’s healthcare systems are a major carbon contributor across the world.

Dr. Peter Yellowlees, a UC Davis Health psychiatrist, said the U.S. contributes to 10% of all carbon.

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“That’s more than the total carbon from quite a number of countries around the world,” Yellowlees said.

A pre-pandemic UC Davis study, spanning the course of nearly two decades, found using telemedicine for basic appointments and consultations kept patients from traveling nearly 5 million miles over that time period. Five million miles, the study said, is equivalent to about nine years’ time and saved patients nearly $3 million.

“Less waste than an in-person encounter,” said UC Davis Dr. James Marcin, director of the Center for Health and Technology and a telemedicine expert.

He said telemedicine can cut down on costs and the use of plastics. He says soon, patients may be able to do even more at home.

“Technologies are being developed so you’re able to look inside someone’s ear, throat, or get an EKG,” Marcin said.

Meanwhile, doctors like Dr. Ellis continue to adapt each year.

“Medicine is definitely moving towards more technology,” Ellis said.

The pandemic helped shine a light on telemedicine’s environmental impacts – as some doctors hope, part of this online surge sticks around.

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Doctors say, however, there are still many things you need to be physically seen for. Especially, they say, any kind of pain. Basic consultations or clinical visits online could be the way of the future.

Heather Janssen