By Christine Kern, contributing writer
Legislation would create a national model that would improve access and quality of care for patients.
As pressure to provide quality and affordable care to those most in need increases, telemedicine is emerging as a solution with tremendous potential. However, some lawmakers and healthcare providers are concerned about the consistency and level of care being offered by some of the new models, particularly as more and more patients turn to their smartphones for healthcare options.
Now, Congressman Michael Burgess, M.D. (R-TX) and Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D- CA) have introduced a bipartisan bill geared to increase patient access to specialty care — while maintaining high quality levels — by adopting a telehealth model nationwide.
The Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act would serve “to increase patient access to best-practice specialty care through an innovative telehealth model.” If passed, it would require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), together with the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), to examine the benefits of integrating the Project ECHO model into local health systems nationwide.
Project ECHO was initiated at the University of New Mexico in 2003 as a continuing medical education model that uses interactive videoconferencing to connect specialists with primary care physicians in rural areas. According to Congresswoman Matsui, the telehealth model in New Mexico provides a “more efficient health IT ecosystem,” and the ECHO Act “would maximize the opportunities of technology in a way that truly transforms our healthcare landscape.”
“The Project ECHO model, which connects primary care providers to specialists, allows health center providers to develop the expertise to manage and meet the complex needs of patients within their own health center. This is especially important for health centers in rural areas, which often have less access to specialty providers and higher incidence of chronic diseases,” said Dan Hawkins, Senior VP, Public Policy and Research, National Association of Community Health Centers.
In a related story, Forbes reports the American Medical Association was scheduled to vote on adopting guidelines on the “ethical practice” of care delivered via telemedicine. Creating a national model would help to ensure the quality of care and continuity of care across healthcare practices.
“Although physicians’ fundamental ethical responsibilities do not change, the continuum of possible patient-physician interactions in telehealth/telemedicine give rise to differing levels of accountability for physicians,” the AMA’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs wrote in a report that will be taken up by delegates.
Dr. Barbara McAneny, immediate past chair of the AMA, said Project ECHO has the potential to reduce chronic disease rates and cut costs by reducing travel time to physician offices and fewer ER visits. It also places a spotlight on collaboration between local universities and the local medical community, McAneny added, eliminating competition for patients. The country’s telehealth market is anticipated to top $2.8 billion by 2022, according to a 2015 report by Grand View Research.