Making a Global Impact in the Fight Against COVID-19

Project ECHO, a telementoring and educational model based at The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, is playing a key role in providing up-to-date information on COVID-19 treatment and vaccination in New Mexico and all over the world.

In 2020, nearly 1.3 million people participated in Project ECHO and more than half a million participated in ECHO programs focused on COVID-19.

Gastroenterologist Sanjeev Arora, MD, founded Project ECHO in 2003 to expand the availability of hepatitis C treatment in New Mexico. Since then, Project ECHO has grown to forge partnerships around the world to support health care workers, educators and other professionals working in rural and underserved communities.

“There were so many people in need of hepatitis C care that the wait time for my clinic was over nine months,” Arora said. “My patients had to drive from all over the state just to see me. People were dying waiting for treatment or because they could not make the long trip. I knew that the knowledge to treat hepatitis C could be transferred to primary care clinicians if we just had the right vehicle.”

Using videoconferencing technology Arora and his UNM clinic team connected with primary care clinicians all over the state, providing ongoing training and telementoring on effective hepatitis C treatment.

“My clinic wait time dropped to under two weeks, and patients were able to receive best-practice care where they lived,” Arora said. “We brought the right care at the right time, to the right place.”

After seeing Project ECHO’s success in New Mexico for hepatitis C, and with the goal to help as many people as possible, Arora adapted the model to treat other diseases. He expanded his team at UNM to share the ECHO model with academic and other medical centers worldwide that shared his vision of working to end suffering and deaths from preventable, treatable conditions and diseases.

The ECHO model moves knowledge, instead of people, by amplifying the capacity of local clinicians to provide best practice care for underserved people where they live.  It works by linking expert interdisciplinary specialist teams with primary care clinicians through regular videoconference sessions.

Experts share their knowledge via mentoring, guidance, feedback and ongoing education. Primary care clinicians develop the skills and knowledge to treat patients with common, complex diseases in their own communities.

Today, Project ECHO has partner sites in 38 countries, with 14 training centers around the world that help spread the ECHO model.

Prior to 2020, more than 400 leading health and health care organizations were using the ECHO model to help expand capacity to specialty care, covering more than 70 chronic diseases and conditions.  ECHO programs reached learners in more than 150 countries.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Project ECHO’s global network of partners quickly developed and launched new programs addressing COVID-19, while simultaneously reinforcing existing programs that were needed more than ever.

“In the past, the ECHO model has been used to address outbreaks of H1N1, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and hantavirus in the U.S., Zika in Puerto Rico and the Pacific Island Territories, and Ebola, Rift Valley Fever and cholera in Africa,” Arora said. “Our global partner network was ready to respond to this new challenge.”

Once the global pandemic was declared, half of ECHO’s programs pivoted to focus on coronavirus-related trainings and updates.

Project ECHO was also chosen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to lead COVID-19 training for nursing home personnel across the United States.

Project ECHO has since stood up 99 training centers across all 50 states, each of which uses the ECHO model to train and support local nursing homes in infection control and best practices to reduce the incidence of COVID-19. To date, Project ECHO has enrolled more than 8,000 – nearly two-thirds – of the nation’s nursing homes in this program.

Project ECHO has also collaborated with various agencies, philanthropies and private partners to combat the COVID-19 virus around the globe. Since February 2020, Project ECHO has launched new programs in partnerships with the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), and many other organizations.

In late 2020, Project ECHO shifted the focus of these partnerships to include sessions on vaccines and vaccination hesitancy.  So far, three sessions have been held in partnership with ASPR, with more than 750 participants from all over the U.S. On January 21, 2021, a session held in partnership with the CDC and WHO on global vaccines was attended by participants from 119 countries.

Around the world, new ECHO programs are launching nearly every day, as partners recognize the value and efficacy of the ECHO model to rapidly and effectively train and support health care workers on critical public health priorities.

This growth is especially prevalent across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where health care needs are the greatest. Many of new ECHO programs are focused on COVID-19, but there are also programs centered on HIV, tuberculosis, behavioral health, diabetes and autism, among other conditions.

Project ECHO has also seen a growth in programming beyond health care, including in education, corrections and parole services, as well as legislative advocacy.

In 2020, these global programs collectively offered training to 1,288,751 attendees. In New Mexico alone, more than 20,000 attendees were trained in 438 ECHO sessions.

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