Sanjeev Arora, M.D., professor of Internal Medicine and director of the UNM Project ECHO program, has been named as an Ashoka Fellow for his development of the innovative telehealth model that is currently helping rural residents receive badly needed treatment for chronic diseases without having to travel hundreds of miles to visit specialists. The Ashoka Foundation support individual social entrepreneurs who respond to social challenges and promote innovative change to address global social problems.

Sparsely populated, and with few health professionals in rural areas, , much of New Mexico remains an underserved area for health services.

“Dr. Sanjeev Arora is using communication technologies to dramatically reduce disparities in care in the United States for patients with common chronic diseases who do not have direct access to healthcare specialists,” award grantors wrote of his work with Project ECHO. “In 2003, nearly 30,000 New Mexicans were infected with Hepatitis C, yet only five percent were able to access treatment which is available almost exclusively through specialists in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The plight of these underserved patients inspired Sanjeev Arora, one of the top Hep C specialists in the country to develop a plan to deliver state of the art treatment to these communities through Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes).”

Project ECHO creates a one-to-many "knowledge network" of specialists and up to 40 rural providers, who meet by videoconference to co-manage specific patients and learn evidence-based treatment skills and knowledge. Sanjeev calls this aspect of ECHO the "workforce multiplier."

Through the "knowledge networks" of the clinics, specialists co-manage patients and help rural primary care providers to develop specialty care for Hepatitis C patients. The overall goal is to eventually saturate the state with the ability to treat Hep C and also help deconstruct stereotypes and prejudices that often have existed between specialists and providers.

By pushing the ability to treat chronic, complex diseases down the work chain, ECHO is not only bringing specialized treatment to thousands of patients who would have otherwise gone untreated, but it is also keeping remote providers where they are most needed. Retention rates for rural medical professionals in New Mexico are notoriously low, and Sanjeev's work is changing this by empowering isolated providers with stimulating, practical, cost-effective continuing education.

Project ECHO has expanded beyond Hep C to ten other diseases and conditions, including pediatric obesity, asthma, cardiovascular risk reduction, substance abuse, mental health disorders and high-risk pregnancy. As public health experts, doctors and health professionals in the US and abroad beat a path to his door. The overall strategy of Project ECHO is to create a new way of delivering specialized medical care, replacing monopolies of knowledge that pull treatment away from the underserved with knowledge networks that send it back out.

The ultimate project goal is to saturate the state with enough rural and prison clinics whose staff can treat the eleven chronic, complex diseases/conditions that ECHO now addresses so that patients can access care in their own communities, with providers they know and trust, utilizing existing healthcare resources, and ensuring safety and quality of care.

According to the Foundation, Ashoka Fellows “are leading social entrepreneurs who we recognize to have innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society. They demonstrate unrivaled commitment to bold new ideas and prove that compassion, creativity, and collaboration are tremendous forces for change. Ashoka Fellows work in over 60 countries around the globe in every area of human need.