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Senate Unanimously Passes Telemedicine Legislation

The ECHO Act aims to make the University of New Mexico's groundbreaking Project ECHO telemedicine program a national model for healthcare collaboration.

- A telemedicine program born at the University of New Mexico is set to become a national model for pushing healthcare into remote and underserved regions.

The Senate on Tuesday approved by a 97-0 vote S. 2873, the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act. The bill places UNM’s five-year-old groundbreaking Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) on a national stage, setting the wheels in motion for a national network of hub-and-spoke telemedicine platforms to provide education and collaboration opportunities for healthcare providers in hard-to-reach areas.

“We’re now one step closer to supporting new ways to train health providers and deliver healthcare,” Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who co-sponsored the bill this past April with Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), said in a press release. “Technology is changing the way medical professionals connect with each other and their patients.  Our bill capitalizes on this technology to give health professionals in hard-to-reach areas the specialized training they need and help them reach more patients.”

“On a recent visit to southern Utah, I had the opportunity to visit a rural health center and speak to some of the families that rely on services included in the ECHO Act,” Hatch added in the release. “Some of these individuals had health conditions that required specialized care or could be managed much closer to home by health professionals they know and trust. By using technology to connect patients and providers, this bill will benefit Utah’s families by helping them receive the care they need, when they need it.  I’m grateful for the valuable input Utah’s health leaders have provided in crafting this proposal.” 

Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) also quickly welcomed the new legislation.

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“Families across New Mexico, including in our rural and tribal communities, deserve access to high-quality health care no matter where they live,” he said in a release. “Project ECHO, started at the University of New Mexico, is using technology to train and connect healthcare specialists to patients in our underserved communities. We have already seen it succeed in addressing some of our healthcare system's biggest disparities in rural areas of our state. I'm proud this pioneering work originated in New Mexico has become the national model for telehealth.”

The legislation calls on the Health and Human Services Department to prepare a report within two years on the various applications of Project ECHO around the country, examining their impact on, among other things: 

  1. mental and substance use disorders, chronic diseases and conditions, prenatal and maternal health, pediatric care, pain management and palliative care;
  2. healthcare workforce issues, such as specialty care shortages and primary care workforce recruitment, retention, and support for lifelong learning;
  3. the implementation of public health programs, including those related to disease prevention, infectious disease outbreaks, and public health surveillance; and
  4. the delivery of healthcare services in rural areas, frontier areas, health professional shortage areas and medically underserved areas and to medically underserved populations and Native Americans.

Project ECHO was launched by the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center in 2011 to connect healthcare specialists with rural providers and their patient populations through a telehealth platform. The program created a hub-and-spoke model, in which specialists at a hub hospital would conduct virtual teleECHO clinics for providers in rural health systems, or spoke sites.

The original program focused on providers treating patients with Hepatitis C and was favorably reviewed in a study that year by the Health and Human Services Department’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

Since then, the model has been adopted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and several health systems around the country, including Schatz’s home state.

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“Hawaii launched two ECHO clinics only three months ago and we've already provided over 100 hours of continuing medical education and we have had inquiries to start four more ECHO clinics on important local topics,” Kelly Withy, MD, PhD, director of the Hawaii-Pacific Basin Area Health Education Center at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine, said this past April. “Healthcare providers love it because they are learning by discussing interventions to help their own patients. It's very gratifying and a win-win all around.” 

Project ECHO’s creator also praised the Senate vote.

“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,” Sanjeev Arora, MD, founder and director of Project ECHO at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, said in a press release. “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.”

Action now passes to the House, where a companion bill, H.R. 5395, introduced by U.S. Rep. Michael C. Burgess, MD (R-Texas) awaits a vote.

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