RWJF and GE Contribute to Project ECHO

The University of New Mexico's Project ECHO stands for Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes, and it aims to improve access and quality of care for rural and underserved communities. Although it began as a project to improve access to hepatitis C treatment, it has expanded to include many types of chronic and complex diseases.

The idea behind ECHO is to connect primary care physicians at clinics with specialists at university medical centers. Both parties have something to contribute — the PCP knows the patient and their broader medical situation, and the specialist has unique knowledge and expertise in specific areas.

That connection becomes even more important in rural and underserved areas, where doctors may be understaffed or undertrained and would likely send patients to a specialist if one were easily accessible. A big part of Project ECHO is telemedicine, which allows patients and PCPs to connect with specialists remotely from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

As ECHO has expanded, the need has grown for a framework to study how it can be replicated in other settings while maintaining its integrity. The recent grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the GE Foundation have helped ECHO create the ECHO Institute, which promises to help spread ECHO across the country and the world (see RWJF: Grants for Mental Health). In addition, the institute can help connect these diverse ECHO groups to foster collaboration and improve care.

ECHO also promotes the integration of mental health and primary care, with plans to train a team of primary care physicians to provide mental health care at community health centers. If successful, ECHO hopes to replicate this pilot program in rural and underserved areas across the country, where patients' only healthcare establishments might be those community healthcare centers.

This grant points to two big trends in the healthcare philanthropy field — telemedicine and rural healthcare. The former often draws grants from big, technology-focused funders who want to see the installation of new equipment in state-of-the-art healthcare facilities. The latter more often draws smaller grants, for facilities providing care to patients in isolated areas. RWJF and GE's ECHO grants is an interesting blend in that it touches on both areas. That probably has as much to do with the singularity of Project ECHO as it does any particular interests of RWJF or GE.