The U.S. Senate on a 97-0 vote has passed the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes Act to expand Project ECHO, an initiative to offer professional development services and other support to healthcare providers in remote and underserved regions.

Project ECHO is modeled after an initiative at the University of New Mexico that links rural patients to providers via telemedicine. Project ECHO initially focused on care for patients with hepatitis C.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) Bloomberg file photo

Under the legislation, which moves to the U.S. House that has a companion bill, Project ECHO now will expand across the nation’s rural areas to serve a wide variety of healthcare needs. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) sponsored the bill.

Also See: Federal grants give rural health programs a boost

Project ECHO will use videoconferencing technology to link specialists with rural primary care providers. Weekly “teleECHO clinics” will combine didactic teaching (ways to better organize work) with mentoring and case-based learning, according to a statement from Hatch.

These clinics, or lectures, could cover such areas as treatments for various diseases, providing behavioral health treatment in rural areas, and making improvements in public health interventions such as HIV and tuberculosis.

The goal, according to Hatch, is to increase professional knowledge among rural providers while providing a network of assistance, improving the provider retention rate, reducing isolation and offering more access to specialists.

The legislation requires the Department of Health and Human Services to assess if Project ECHO improves the quality of care, and calls for the Government Accountability Office to assess increased efficiencies and cost savings via the program.

“We’re now one step closer to supporting new ways to train health providers and deliver health care,” Sen. Schatz 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 to reach more patients.

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