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UNM’s remote health care project gets $14M

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A University of New Mexico program created to deliver complex medical care to people in rural New Mexico has received a $14 million grant from the GE Foundation to replicate the model across the United States, the foundation announced Monday.

UNM’s Project ECHO uses videoconferencing tools that allow teams of specialists at a “hub” medical center to train and mentor clinicians in underserved areas.

The intent of the three-year grant program is to extend the Project ECHO model to federally qualified health centers, or FQHCs, which provide medical services to an estimated 22 million patients nationwide.

“This is a huge project,” said Erika Harding, Project ECHO’s director of replication. “It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done.”

The GE Foundation turned to Project ECHO to transform the way health care is delivered at FQHCs across the nation, she said.

“Federally qualified health centers are really the main health care delivery system for the underserved in the United States,” Harding said. “They really are America’s front-line health care service.”

The Project ECHO model is a web-based system formed in 2003 by UNM physician Dr. Sanjeev Arora to help him treat hepatitis C patients statewide with the help of primary care clinicians.

The program since been expanded to include 46 diseases, including HIV/AIDS, diabetes, substance abuse, mental illness, chronic pain, heart disease and high-risk pregnancy.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has its own version of Project ECHO and the Department of Defense has a global ECHO chronic pain management program.

A key goal of the GE Foundation grant is to create 100 additional U.S. hubs – primarily academic medical centers that provide teams of experts that train clinicians to treat complex illnesses, Harding said.

Project ECHO today has 54 hub medical centers worldwide, including 21 U.S. hubs in 18 states.

Another goal of the grant program will be to use the Project ECHO model to improve administration and leadership at remote clinics, Harding said. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a group that provides administrative training for FQHCs, will use the model to expand its work, she said.