After completing this initial orientation and training, partners—who currently include pharmacists, nurse practitioners, primary care physicians, and physician assistants—begin presenting HCV-positive patients during weekly two-hour telemedicine clinics using a standardized, case-based format that includes discussion of treatment complications and psychiatric, medical, and substance abuse issues. During these clinics, partners collaborate with specialists from gastroenterology, infectious disease, psychiatry, substance abuse, and pharmacology, as well as with other network providers in learning loops.
Learning loops are case-based educational experiences in which community providers learn through three main routes: (1) longitudinal comanagement of patients with specialists, (2) other primary care providers on the network via shared case-management decision making, and (3) short didactic presentations on relevant topics, such as vaccination for hepatitis A and B and diagnosis of depression. These learning loops create deep domain knowledge about the area in question—here HCV—among rural providers, enabling them to provide the highest-quality treatment for their patients. Ethical and legal issues, such as licensing and credentialing, related to the comanagement of patients through the use of telemedicine have been major obstacles to wider utilization of telehealth.22 Project ECHO specialists only collaborate with health care providers within the state of New Mexico and so do not confront issues with practicing in other states. Further, the novel use of telemedicine in Project ECHO means that academic specialists serve as consultants to other health care professionals, who remain the primary providers of care for underserved patients.
Benefits of Project ECHO for Providers
Health care providers in underserved areas face a number of unique professional difficulties, including personal isolation and professional stagnation, excessive workload, and lack of access to consultation and continuing medical education (CME). These problems have led to accelerated burnout and rapid turnover, which prevent the development of longitudinal patient–physician relationships and continuity of care among underserved populations.23 One of the primary benefits of a partnership with an AHC is the potential to improve the recruitment and retention of physicians and other health care providers with personal or professional investments in rural medicine by helping to alleviate the aforementioned stresses.
Project ECHO addresses many of the problems encountered by rural and corrections health care providers. Participants in the network are offered free CME credits. Providers who manage 20 patients through a year of antiviral therapy are eligible to obtain certification demonstrating their expertise in the area of HCV treatment. Participation in weekly telemedicine clinics reduces peer isolation and fosters professional development. Project ECHO strives to restore the balance of education and clinical work that characterizes residency training by using case-based, patient-centered learning that has been shown to be far more effective in building essential clinical knowledge and skills than traditional lecture- or conference-based didactic CME.24,25 Similar efforts in other rural areas have shown high rates of provider satisfaction.26
One of the most important barriers confronting a primary care provider attempting to manage complex diseases like hepatitis C, HIV, or diabetes is the exponential growth of scientific information, which has generated an unprecedented knowledge gap for health professionals. The knowledge networks of Project ECHO deliver patient-specific knowledge on demand, thus bridging this gap to deliver the highest quality of patient care (Figure 3).27 Indeed, every health care professional practices in an “underserved area” of knowledge outside his or her own expertise and, thus, could benefit from participation in knowledge networks.28
Preliminary data from provider satisfaction surveys indicate that many of these goals are being achieved. Twenty-nine providers completed a questionnaire covering their participation during the period August 2004 to June 2005. Ninety-six percent reported enhanced knowledge about management and treatment of HCV patients, and 92% believed they had obtained competence in caring for HCV patients. Reinforcing the target outcomes of Project ECHO to reduce rural provider isolation and to enhance access to specialty services, 84% cited access to expertise in behavioral and mental health care resources as helpful in caring for HCV patients. Seventy-one percent mentioned collegial discussion with peers as a major benefit of participation. Twenty-nine providers completed a survey at the 2006 annual Project ECHO meeting regarding the benefits they received from participation in the network. On a five-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree), the average response to the statement “I have access to Project ECHO specialists and their expertise whenever needed” was 4.8. The practical importance of an integrated approach to health care was shown in the average response of 4.5 given to the statement, “Collaboration among agencies is a benefit to my clinic.” Finally, survey respondents were invited to qualitatively describe their reasons for participation in Project ECHO. The single most important reason mentioned was, “To provide appropriate care for hepatitis C patients at their primary care location and to access subspecialty service for patients who would not otherwise have that service.”
Benefits of Project ECHO for Patients
Numerous studies have shown that specialist treatment of complex, chronic conditions, such as HIV, diabetes, and depression, is superior to that of primary care providers, chiefly because of domain knowledge and experience.18,29,30 The Project ECHO model enables primary care providers, in collaboration with specialists, to develop a similar level of treatment competence in a chosen content area. This increased competence reduces medical errors (e.g., failure to vaccinate HCV-positive patients for hepatitis A and B), avoids unnecessary testing (e.g., the HCV RIBA assay), reduces the morbidity and mortality of untreated disease (e.g., cirrhosis and hepatocellular cancer), mitigates the cost of future interventions (e.g., liver transplantation), and may reduce treatment-related complications (e.g., anemia and depression). The project does not supplant but supplements the traditional strengths of the primary care physician–patient relationship. The model empowers primary providers to offer safer and more comprehensive care for complicated disorders that previously would have been managed through specialty referral, with the resulting long wait times, increased cost, and fragmentation of care.
Since the first Project ECHO HCV telemedicine clinic was held in June of 2003, 137 clinics have been conducted, with a total of 1,234 case presentations of patients enrolled in the HCV disease-management program. In 2005 alone there were 1,581 patient visits for HCV disease management at Project ECHO partner sites. Currently, there are 173 patients on interferon and ribavirin treatment for HCV in New Mexico via Project ECHO. This number is substantial given that most large university HCV programs typically have approximately 50 patients on treatment at one time, given the complexities of the treatment process. In addition, 2,683 hours of CME credit have been issued and 390 hours of on-site staff and provider training have been offered during the last two years at no cost to participants. Through indigent drug-replacement programs, pharmaceutical firms have donated more than three million dollars of no-cost pharmaceuticals for patients in Project ECHO.
We believe that the successes of Project ECHO thus far include significantly improved outcomes in patient care. The numbers of case presentations and teleconference hours represent substantial progress in the treatment of HCV in New Mexico, precisely because participants are providing high-quality and accessible care to hundreds of HCV-positive patients who would otherwise not receive treatment. Our initial goals were to construct a network enabling two major populations—those in the criminal justice system and those in underserved rural and urban areas—to receive state-of-the-art HCV medical management with antiviral therapy, and, concomitant with this outreach, to demonstrate the efficacy of telemedicine for the treatment of chronic disease in a variety of underserved areas. We feel that conducting near-weekly teleconferences with each of these groups in a three-year time period and obtaining free pharmaceutical, laboratory, medical, and behavioral health care for patients enrolled in Project ECHO are evidence of having accomplished our target goals. The teleconference model has been so successful that the Project ECHO team recently instituted separate clinics for HIV–HCV coinfection and substance abuse disorders. On July 1, 2006, additional Project ECHO clinics have started for substance abuse disorders, rheumatology consultation, gestational diabetes, and management of mental health disorders throughout New Mexico. Future patient-care goals are to expand access to these diverse specialty networks to any provider in New Mexico wishing to participate.
Barriers to Project ECHO
Project ECHO incorporates many of the principles, practices, and policies recommended by the Agency for Health care Research and Quality (AHRQ) and other government panels and professional organizations to meet the challenges of 21st-century health care delivery, particularly the problem of health disparities.31
The single greatest barrier to the success of Project ECHO was obtaining funding and constructing infrastructure to treat this prevalent and serious infectious disease in one of the most underserved and impoverished states in the country. Without treatment, 8,000 patients in New Mexico will develop cirrhosis, eventuating in several thousand deaths.6
Acquiring stable funding and infrastructure to provide disease management for HCV infection and other complex conditions can only be achieved through the collaboration of public health, government, academic, and private sectors in the United States. AHCs, with their triple mission of research, education, and clinical care, are the ideal and perhaps only entity with the technical sophistication, administrative experience, and professional ethos to lead such a collaborative initiative. The most effective interventions to improve health care delivery to rural areas are those that support the education of primary care physicians, increase the flow of providers to rural areas, strengthen and support rural health care institutions with the latest clinical research, and integrate rural health care into larger regional systems.32,33 Endeavors like Project ECHO have the potential to help achieve the above objectives in almost any setting, including the rural United States or the developing world.23
Project ECHO was set up initially on a federal grant from the AHRQ. We subsequently proposed a public health model to operate Project ECHO, and we received key funding from the New Mexico State Legislature to address this health care disparity and achieve continuity of specialty care for the uninsured. Another indication of the success of Project ECHO and its collaborative model has been the acquisition of stable and recurring funding from pharmaceutical companies and the University of New Mexico. In March 2006, the New Mexico State Legislature provided permanent recurring funding for the project.
Project ECHO and the Mission of AHCs
Integral to the value of this paradigm shift in the treatment of chronic, complex diseases is the enabling of AHCs to fulfill their historic threefold mission of clinical care, education, and research, as well as honor an increasingly recognized obligation to protect and improve public health.34,35 We have already outlined the potential clinical and public health implications of knowledge networks, but they also have significance for education and research.
Psychiatry, family medicine, and internal medicine residents as well as medical students regularly participate in HCV clinics, seeing firsthand the benefits of telemedicine and knowledge networks. They participate in discussions, review cases with faculty, and learn about detailed disease management.
Collaborations such as Project ECHO are ideal venues for the pursuit of clinical research in the fields of epidemiology, health care delivery, best practices, evidence-based medicine, and health care cost-effectiveness, the results of which have real-world applicability.
Knowledge networks offer AHCs a unique opportunity to assume leadership in partnerships with a focused synergy on major public health problems, thus continuing to justify and warrant traditional state and federal mechanisms of funding and support as well as attracting new community, industry, and managed care resources.36
Like all innovations, a knowledge network must be constantly evaluated and improved in response to feedback. We survey participants regarding their experience and have incorporated feedback into the timing and length of sessions, case presentation format, disease-management protocols, procedures for accessing indigent care, pharmaceutical drug-replacement programs, efficacy and ease of use of technology, and content of short didactic presentations. Other survey instruments are used to assess the efficacy of knowledge networks and learning loops. A biannual meeting of all providers serves to share best practices among rural sites. Over time, as outcomes become available, we will compare them with alternate care models to assess further the function of the Project ECHO model.
We hope the methodology of Project ECHO can be generalized to many common, complex, and chronic conditions in a wide variety of underserved and developing areas to effectively improve disease outcomes. This project can be a model for the interaction of AHCs with the diverse communities they serve, providing educational, research, and clinical expertise to primary care providers in locations distant from the AHC in both geography and resources.
This project is supported by grant number 1 UC1 HS015135 from the Agency for Health care Research and Quality. Sponsors have not been involved in the following: design, conduct, or management of the project; data analyses or interpretation; or preparation, review, or approval of this manuscript. Thanks to Ms. Margaret Smithpeter for editing this manuscript.
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