New Mexico's Project ECHO put forth as national telehealth model for rural care

New Senate legislation calls for a closer look at the initiative, launched in 2003 with AHRQ backing.
By Bernie Monegain
10:41 AM
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A new bill would connect primary care physicians in underserved areas with specialists at academic hubs, "making it easier for medical professionals to access the continuing education they need and provide health care to more people," said Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

Project ECHO, a health IT pilot that launched in 2003 in rural New Mexico to connect rural doctors to specialists, is now front and center in Congress as lawmakers consider employing the model across the country.

Senators Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes Act this past week. The bill calls for studies on how best to expand the model.

In New Mexico, Project ECHO has recorded unprecedented success in treating patients with hepatitis C.

"Project ECHO has proven that technology can help overcome traditional barriers to adequate healthcare treatment, such as distance, income and lack of specialized medical professionals for underserved communities with no access to treatment," Sanjeev Arora, MD, project director, told Healthcare IT News back in 2008.

[Also: IT employed in hepatitis-C fight in rural New Mexico]

The initiative is underpinned by a Web-based application developed by Infosys Technologies.

Project ECHO – it stands for Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes – was funded by Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, so the federal government already has a hand in the effort.

"In states with large rural populations like Utah, it's vital that we do everything we can to ensure that patients have access to quality health care – no matter where they live," Hatch said in an April 29 statement posted on his website.

"Our bill would help connect primary care providers in underserved areas with specialists at academic hubs, making it easier for medical professionals to access the continuing education they need and provide health care to more people," added Schatz.

The bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services to work with the Health Resources & Services Administration to prioritize analysis of the model, its impacts on provider capacity and workforce issues, and evidence of its effects on quality of patient care.

It calls on GAO to report on how increased adoption of a Project ECHO model might boost efficiencies and potential cost savings and improve healthcare.

It also requires HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell to submit a report to Congress on the findings of the GAO report and the HHS report, including ways such models have been funded by HHS and how to integrate the models into existing funding streams and grant proposals.