Senate passes ECHO act to support tele-training for rural primary care docs

By Jonah Comstock
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The Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill yesterday that would expand a successful New Mexico telehealth program onto the national stage. Project ECHO is a hub-and-spoke model for connecting specialists at academic medical centers with primary care physicians via teleconferencing technologies. Because there is no remote patient monitoring technology or direct patient-doctor communication via technology, the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, which developed the model, doesn't consider it to be telemedicine.

"The ECHO model does not actually 'provide' care to patients," they explain. "Instead, it dramatically increases access to specialty treatment in rural and underserved areas by providing front-line clinicians with the knowledge and support they need to manage patients with complex conditions such as: hepatitis C, HIV, tuberculosis, chronic pain, endocrinology, behavioral health disorders, and many others.  It does this by engaging clinicians in a continuous learning system and partnering them with specialist mentors at an academic medical center or hub."

The bill, proposed by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) passed 97 to 0. It doesn't increase deployment of the ECHO model outright, but it prioritizes the study of the model, including study by the Government Accountability Office, and paves the way for HHS to expand the model in the future.

“Our legislation improves medical services for all Americans by providing healthcare professionals in rural and underserved communities with access to a network of peers and specialists who can teach specialty care,” Hatch said in a statement before the bill was passed. “By connecting doctors and nurses with teams of experts, patients can receive the care they need, when they need it. And most importantly, patients won’t have to travel long distances to receive treatments; they can stay close to home and receive treatment from doctors they know and trust."

The broad bipartisan support shows that there are some technological approaches to improving healthcare that will continue to thrive, even in a deeply divided legislature going into a new, uncertain administration. However, the bill still needs to secure a vote in the House.

"We’re now one step closer to supporting new ways to train health providers and deliver health care,” Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “Technology is changing the way medical professionals connect with each other and their patients. Our bill capitalizes on this technology to give health professionals in hard-to-reach areas the specialized training they need and help them reach more patients.”

Schatz is also sponsoring a more broad-reaching telehealth bill called CONNECT for Health. According to Politico, its prospects for this lame duck session don't look great.