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UNM’s ECHO to assist with migrant health

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Health officials at the University of New Mexico are designing a program to help treat sick migrants – many of them seeking asylum – being detained in crowded government facilities near the border.

Dr. Sanjeev Arora

Dr. Sanjeev Arora, director of Project ECHO – Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes – at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, said that an ECHO program to help treat migrants in facilities near the Mexican border is being developed and should be up and running in the coming weeks.

“There are children and people (at the border) who are housed in government facilities who need health care, and there isn’t enough expertise there,” Arora said. “We are going to bring our existing resources to bear and start an ECHO for them.”

Arora included the initiative as part of his talk during an Economic Forum of Albuquerque meeting this week. The liver disease doctor created ECHO in 2003 as a way for medical experts at UNM to share their knowledge with health care providers in rural areas.

ECHO programs, which now total in the hundreds and reach worldwide, are essentially video teleconferences where specialized experts of a topic share knowledge with health care providers in areas where health officials don’t have the same expertise, especially rural areas.

Instead of one doctor being able to treat one patient through videoconference, the sharing of knowledge allows the number of patients helped to grow exponentially, Arora said.

The original ECHO targeted hepatitis C treatment. It helped specialists disseminate knowledge to primary care providers with the goal of preventing patients from dying from a curable disease simply because they don’t have access to such providers. More than 10,000 New Mexicans with hepatitis have been helped by an ECHO conference since the program was created, Arora said.

Officials are currently working to create the curriculum for the border health ECHO project, said Dr. Joanna Katzman, the senior associate director at Project ECHO. She said the hub of experts will likely include physicians who specialize in pediatrics, infectious diseases, family medicine, global health and other areas.

She said the majority of clinicians treating asylum-seekers and others at the border are volunteers.

“We’re putting together this border health ECHO to increase the capacity of the … clinicians that could provide care to the asylum-seekers,” she said. “What we’re intending to do is launch this border health ECHO, and it will tie together all these components. Patients being seen at the border can be presented to border health ECHO to subject matter experts who will then be able to provide consultation.”

The border project is just another example of how UNM’s ECHO program has expanded far past dealing with hepatitis. There’s currently an ECHO project connecting police officers and mental health experts throughout the country to discuss ways that law enforcement officers can improve their interactions with mentally ill people, for example.

Katzman said the curriculum and experts who will be involved in the ECHO program for the border are being organized and should be up and running in two to four weeks. Like other ECHO projects, the forum will be open to interested clinicians. She said the university is expecting the project to be popular and to eventually draw clinicians from other border states.

There are thousands of migrants, including children, being detained in government facilities, which are not designed to be places for treating some of the medical conditions that are being seen there. In May alone, the U.S. Border Patrol detained 132,000 migrants, many of them seeking asylum, according to the CBP.

The need has far outstripped the services available.

Some migrants crossing the border have been diagnosed with pneumonia and other serious illnesses, including tuberculosis, parasites and gastrointestinal problems, according to CBP. CBP officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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