Project ECHO, the transformative model for lifelong medical education and collaborative care based at the UNM Health Sciences Center (UNMHSC), recently received two major grants: one to establish an institute for replicating the ECHO model nationally and globally and the second to pilot an innovative community-based approach for expanding access to behavioral health care.

Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) is a groundbreaking approach to increasing access to specialty care that started in New Mexico for hepatitis C treatment. It has now expanded beyond New Mexico and includes many other common, chronic, and complex diseases.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated to improving U.S. health and health care, awarded Project ECHO a two-year, $5 million grant to create and support the ECHO Institute at the UNMHSC. Sanjeev Arora, M.D., the social innovator and liver disease specialist who created the ECHO model, will lead the ECHO Institute.

In addition, a three-year, $4.7 million grant from the GE Foundation will fund Project ECHO to prototype and evaluate a new model for integrating behavioral health care with primary care. Project ECHO will train teams of nurse practitioners and community health workers to screen for, diagnose, and treat mental illness and substance abuse in eight community health centers across New Mexico. Through weekly teleconference clinics, these primary care teams will work with behavioral health care specialists at UNMHSC to manage patients with complex needs. If the model proves successful at expanding access to behavioral health care services, it will be replicated at other Project ECHO sites.

According to Miriam Komaromy, M.D., associate director at Project ECHO and medical director for the Integrated Addiction and Psychiatry TeleECHO Clinic, the eight community health centers participating in the GE Foundation pilot will begin screening patients for mental health disorders this fall.

“I would like to thank the Robert Wood Johnson Foundations for its grant to create the ECHO Institute here at the UNM Health Sciences Center and the GE Foundation for supporting our efforts to integrate behavioral health and primary care,” said UNMHSC Chancellor Paul Roth, M.D. “I also congratulate Dr. Arora for his years of leadership and innovation. Project ECHO has dramatically increased access to quality health care for thousands of patients who have been limited by geography and the unavailability of local physicians and specialists.”

“Project ECHO is about creating a more perfect health care system – one in which patients get the care they need, when and where they need it, and the care is good quality, based on best practices,” said Richard Larson, M.D., Executive Vice Chancellor for UNMHSC. “These two grants will help Project ECHO build upon and expand the important work it is doing. We are grateful to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the GE Foundation for their support.”

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, a longtime supporter of Project ECHO, said the two grants from RWJF and the GE Foundation demonstrate the broader potential of the ECHO model to address serious challenges facing the health care system.

“Access to specialty care is a major problem for many people in New Mexico,” Sen. Udall said. “Project ECHO has already proved highly successful at bringing specialized care for a range of chronic illnesses to thousands of New Mexicans in remote and underserved areas. I was pleased to obtain early federal funding for Project ECHO, and am delighted to see this new expansion into behavioral health care, which has the potential to serve as a national model.”

Since its launch in 2003, replicating the ECHO model has drawn interest, first with partner sites, then with a nationwide pilot by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and more recently, with a global chronic pain management program with the Department of Defense. Numerous other federal agencies, academic medical centers, and even other countries are in various stages of exploring or implementing Project ECHO.

The institute will develop the infrastructure and tools to help disseminate the ECHO model while ensuring the integrity of the model, and connecting ECHO programs nationally and globally in order to mine data for disease patterns and establish best practices.

“We are energized to undertake the new work being funded,” Dr. Arora said. “Our goal for Project ECHO is to create a new operating platform for our health care system so that it can do more good for more patients, without expending additional resources. These two new grants will help us meet that mission.”