Study Estimates Carbon Footprint Reduction of Virtual Isotretinoin Visits

Christine Kilgore

July 28, 2021

The environmental impact of virtual isotretinoin management at West Virginia University Hospital (WVUH) in 2020 has been estimated in a new study: A reduction of 5,137 kg of greenhouse gas emissions in carbon dioxide equivalents.

In what they say is "one of the first studies to evaluate the environmental impact of any aspect of dermatology," the authors of the retrospective cross-sectional study identified patients who had virtual visits for isotretinoin management between March 25 and May 29, 2020, – the period during which all such visits were conducted virtually in keeping with hospital recommendations to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

The investigators, from the department of dermatology and the department of civil and environmental engineering at West Virginia University, Morgantown, then counted the number of virtual visits that occurred during this period and through Dec. 1, 2020, (175 virtual visits), calculated the distance patients would have traveled round-trip had these visits been in-person, and converted miles saved into the environmental impact using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Highway Administration data and relevant EPA standards.

Most patients had elected to continue virtual visits after May 29, the point at which patients were given the option to return to the WVUH clinic. (Patients who initiated treatment during the 2-month identification period were not included.)

The investigators determined that virtual management of isotretinoin saved a median of 37.8 miles per visit during the study period of March 25 to Dec. 1, and estimated that the virtual visits reduced total travel by 14,450 miles. For the analysis, patients were assumed to use light-duty vehicles.

In addition to calculating the reduction in emissions during the study period (5,137 kg of CO2equivalents) they used patient census data from 2019 to 2020 and data from the study period to project the mileage – and the associated emissions – that would be saved annually if all in-person visits for isotretinoin management occurred virtually.

Their calculation for a projected emissions reduction with 1 year of all-virtual isotretinoin management was 49,400 kg of greenhouse gas emissions in CO2equivalents. This is the emission load released when 24,690 kg of coal are burned or 6.3 million smartphones are charged, the researchers wrote.

"Considering that more than 1,000,000 prescriptions of isotretinoin are authorized annually in the United States, the environmental impact could be magnified if virtual delivery of isotretinoin care is adopted on a national scale," they commented."Given the serious consequences of global climate change, analysis of the environmental impact of all fields of medicine, including dermatology, is warranted," they added.

The reduced greenhouse gas emissions are "definitely [being taken] into consideration for future decisions about virtual visits" in the department of dermatology, said Zachary Zinn, MD, residency director and associate professor in the department of dermatology at West Virginia University, Morgantown, who is the senior author of the study. "The main benefit of virtual care in my opinion," he said in an interview, "is the potential to reduce our carbon footprint."

Justin Lee, MD, an intern at WVU and the study's first author, said that the research team was motivated to think about how they "could reduce the negative environmental impact of practicing dermatology" after they read a paper about the environmental impact of endoscopy, written by a gastroenterologist.

In the study, no pregnancies occurred and monthly tests were performed, but "formal assessment of pregnancy risk with virtual isotretinoin management would be warranted," Lee and coauthors wrote, noting too that, while no differences were seen with respect to isotretinoin side effects, these were not formally analyzed.

Zinn said that he and colleagues at WVUH are currently conducting clinical trials to assess the quality and efficacy of virtual care for patients with acne, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis. Delivering care virtually "will be easier to do if there are data supporting [its] quality and efficacy," he said. Rosacea is another condition that may be amendable to virtual care, he noted.

Meanwhile, he said, isotretinoin management is "well suited" for virtual visits. When initiating isotretinoin treatment, Zinn now "proactively inquires" if patients would like to pursue their follow-up visits virtually. "I'll note that it will save the time and decrease the burden of travel, including the financial cost as well as the environmental cost of travel," he said, estimating that about half of their management visits are currently virtual.

Asked about the study, Misha Rosenbach, MD, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, said the reduced carbon footprint calculated by the researchers and its downstream health benefits "should be taken into consideration by [dermatology] departments, insurers and policymakers" when making decisions about teledermatology.

While environmental impact is "not something I think most institutions are considering for virtual versus in-person care, they should be. And some are," said Rosenbach, a founder and cochair of the American Academy of Dermatology Expert Resource Group for Climate Change and Environmental Issues.

Limitations of the study include the generalizability of the results. The impact of virtual isotretinoin management "may be less in predominantly urban areas" than it is in predominately rural West Virginia, the study authors note. And in the case of West Virginia, travel to a local laboratory and pharmacy offsets some of the environmental benefits for the virtual care, they noted. Such travel wasn't accounted for in the study, but it was found to be a fraction of travel to the WVU hospital clinic. (Patients traveled a median of 5.8 miles to a lab 2.4 times from March 25 to Dec. 1, 2020.)

Lee will start his dermatology residency at WVU next year. The study was funded by a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation. The authors have no relevant conflicts of interest, according to Lee.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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