Senate passes Project ECHO bill, aiming to boost care access for rural populations through telehealth training

A new federal law is another step forward for telehealth, which has from the start run up against regulatory and credentialing barriers: The Senate unanimously approved the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act yesterday.

U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the bill, which aims to increase access to healthcare in rural areas though Continuing Medical Education focused on telehealth technology.

“We’re now one step closer to supporting new ways to train health providers and deliver healthcare,” Senator Schatz, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, said in a statement. “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.”

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The ECHO model, created at the University of New Mexico, was first introduced in 2013 by Sanjeev Arora, M.D., a professor in UNM’s Department of Internal Medicine. A liver disease specialist, he developed the model after he realized that one of the greatest barriers to providing care was a lack of trained clinicians who could treat the condition.

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,” Arora, who directs the project, said in a statement. “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.”

Since 2013, ECHO has expanded to more than 90 hubs for more than 45 diseases and conditions. Support has been widespread, with boosters in Congress, the healthcare industry and its trade groups, the vendor arena and more.

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The ECHO Act aims to better integrate the Project ECHO model into health systems across the country.  

The bill does the following:

  • Requires the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, in collaboration with the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), to prioritize analysis of the model, its impacts on provider capacity and workforce issues and evidence of its effects on quality of patient care.

  • Requests a GAO report regarding opportunities for increased adoption of such models, efficiencies and potential cost savings from them, ways to improve health care through models and field recommendations to advance the use of such models.

  • Requires the HHS Secretary 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 these models into current funding streams and innovative grant proposals.

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In this brief video, project ECHO director Sanjeev Arora, M.D., talks about the origins of and inspiration for the program: