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Primary Care “Intensivists” to Take On 5,000 Complex Patients

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – UNM Health Sciences Center’s Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) has been awarded nearly $8.5 million over three years from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Health Care Innovation awards.

Project ECHO is a transformative model of medical education and health care delivery that brings high-quality care to very sick patients wherever they live. It was created by social innovator Sanjeev Arora, M.D., a physician at the UNM Health Sciences Center.

“Providing patients who have complex chronic diseases with the treatment they need can be extremely challenging,” posits Arora, who developed ECHO 10 years ago. “The ECHO model exponentially expands the health care system’s ability to treat these patients. As a result, thousands of people – many of them from poor and isolated communities – are living longer, healthier lives, with less pain and disability.”

Project ECHO teamscommunity-based providers with specialists at university medical centers to manage patients with complex chronic conditions. Through real-time virtual clinics conducted weekly in the manner of grand rounds, Project ECHO shares medical knowledge to expand treatment capacity.

“I am very pleased that UNM’s Clinical and Translational Science Center has been able to assist Project ECHO in its effective use of telemedicine to bring exceptional, specialty patient care to rural and underserved communities,” offers Richard Larson, M.D., Ph.D., Clinical and Translation Science Center director.

The award, one of 26 nationwide, is administered through HHS’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, and estimated to save more than $11 million in health care costs over the same time period. The department says the 26 awardees were selected for offering innovative solutions to health care challenges facing their communities and a focus on creating a well-trained health care workforce.

Under the grant, UNM will identify 5,000 high-cost, high-utilization, high-severity patients in New Mexico and Washington State, and use a team of primary care “intensivists” trained to care for complex patients with multiple chronic diseases, working with area managed care organizations and care providers. Project ECHO will train as many as 300 workers to help increase primary care physicians’ capacity to treat and manage complex patients.

“Project ECHO builds knowledge networks, so that across the health care system – whether in rural New Mexico or inner-city Chicago – doctors, nurses and other health professionals can provide better care to more people right in their own communities,” says Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which supports Project ECHO through its Pioneer Portfolio. “We believe one day this will be the new norm for best medical practice.”

Project ECHO is an internationally acclaimed program developed within the School of Medicine to improve rural and frontier access to specialty care for New Mexico patients. In 2002, Arora, a physician with the Department of Internal Medicine at UNM Hospital and one of New Mexico’s few hepatitis specialists developed Project ECHO to provide care for thousands of New Mexicans across the state suffering from hepatitis C.

“ECHO provides much needed health care access and medical expertise in the far reaches of our state,” adds UNM Regents' Professor and Internal Medicine Chair Pope L. Moseley, M.D. “It’s a superbly effective model adaptable to numerous chronic health challenges that can be applied in rural and urban areas throughout the world.”

Treating hepatitis C is a complicated process. In rural and medically underserved areas, proximity to specialists, a limited number of specialty providers and inadequate medical insurance severely limit a patient’s ability to seek specialty care. This means that thousands of rural patients across the state who did not have access to a specialist or the means to gain access would largely go untreated.

The program has experienced great success in improving patient access and health outcomes, and in training community health care providers. Over the past decade, ECHO has been expanded to assist with asthma, diabetes, HIV and AIDS, pediatric obesity, chronic pain, substance abuse, rheumatoid arthritis, and more in New Mexico and more recently in Washington State.

The fundamental mission of Project ECHO is to develop the capacity to safely and effectively treat chronic, common, and complex diseases in rural and underserved areas, and to monitor treatment outcomes. In addition to funding from RWJF, Project ECHO has received support from the New Mexico Legislature, the University of New Mexico, and the New Mexico Department of Public Health.

For more information on Project ECHO, visithttp://echo.unm.edu/.The CMS Innovation Center was created by the Affordable Care Act to test innovative payment and service delivery models that have the potential to reduce program expenditures while preserving or enhancing the quality of care. For more information, visitinnovation.cms.gov.


Contact: Luke Frank, 272-3322