Commentary: Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall joined the full Senate in voting 97-0 to approve the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act -- a measure based on the University of New Mexico's successful Project ECHO program -- to increase access to high quality health care in rural communities. Udall is a cosponsor of the bill and, as a member of the Appropriations Committee, has been a strong supporter of funding for the program.
The ECHO Act would expand the successful Project Extension for Community Health Outcomes (ECHO), a model program founded at the University of New Mexico in 2003 by Dr. Sanjeev Arora. The project connects health care specialists and experts to primary care physicians in hard-to-reach areas using interactive video-conferencing. Originally designed to combat the Hepatitis-C epidemic in New Mexico, Project ECHO now enables patients to get treatment for a diverse array of disease conditions from various levels of health care providers, and it has grown to serve communities nationwide and internationally.
"All New Mexicans deserve quality health care no matter where they live, and Project ECHO has helped ensure rural patients can get treatment without having to drive hours to see a specialist," Udall said. "Dr. Arora faced a serious health care challenge head-on by developing Project ECHO to provide case-based interactive training over video-conferencing so local physicians could deliver specialized treatment themselves. This is the kind of innovation that stems from a community coming together to create a solution that best meets its needs. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I was proud to support this project from the beginning. Now, as a cosponsor of the ECHO Act, I am thrilled to see New Mexico’s model become the foundation for a national strategy to provide quality, accessible health care to all of our rural communities."
Dr. Arora who pioneered the ECHO Project, welcomed the advancement of the ECHO Act: "Medical knowledge is exploding, but it’s often not traveling the last mile to ensure that patients get the right care in the right place at the right time. If we can leverage technology to spread best practices through case-based learning and mentoring of providers, we can move knowledge – instead of patients – to get better care to rural and underserved communities across the country."
While a quarter of Americans live in rural communities, only 10 percent of physicians practice in these areas. Partly because of lack of access to care, rural residents are more likely to suffer from some chronic diseases.
In addition to being a successful tool for tackling hard-to-treat diseases, the Project ECHO model has been used to treat behavioral health issues, improve patient care and satisfaction, increase knowledge and reduce isolation for providers, and improve retention rates for physicians in rural, underserved areas.
In order to integrate the ECHO Project model into existing programs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the ECHO Act will require HHS and the Health and Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to analyze the model and its ability to improve patient care and provider education and report the findings to Congress along with ways these models have been funded by HHS and how to ensure continued funding.