NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Connecting with your doctor over Zoom is not uncommon in a post-COVID world, but 20 years ago, there was no such thing as telehealth. That is until one doctor from the University of New Mexico (UNM) took a calculated risk to bring cutting-edge care to remote corners of the state. As part of the KRQE original series “New Mexico Frontiers,” Chad Brummett looked into how Project ECHO got its start.

According to a 2020 study, a stunning 96% of Ugandan participants had an active hepatitis C infection. The viral infection can often go undiagnosed due to a lack of obvious symptoms. However, without treatment, the infection can lead to serious liver damage and even death. This was the case for one of Dr. Sanjeev Arora‘s patients.

Dr. Arora is a distinguished and regents professor of medicine at UNM. “I certainly had one patient who got me really thinking about the problem of hepatitis C and the enormous number of deaths it was causing in New Mexico,” said Arora. He was treating a 43-year-old widow and mother of two in the early 2000s. At that time, New Mexico’s rural landscape and lack of expertise in specialized fields presented a very real problem for healthcare in the state – particularly with the viral infection.

Arora says, “The real challenge I was facing was that there were 28,000 hepatitis C patients in New Mexico, and only 1,500 had been treated.” After that patient passed away, Dr. Arora used his own resources to establish something we all take for granted now: telehealth video conferencing. Thus Project ECHO was born.

A typical hospital will host physicians’ rounds at least once a day. While they are there, doctors and specialists will interact directly with nurses, patients, and primary care doctors to discuss details of patients’ cases. Project ECHO takes that model of learning and medical discovery to the internet, providing remote discussions of anonymous cases from around the world with teams of specialists here in New Mexico.

“So essentially, the way we make specialists in the United States is through case-based learning and guided practice,” said Arora. Being able to reach patients in the most remote parts of the state, the country, and the globe means shorter wait times for patient care and better outcomes for their health challenges. Arora says, “We found that in one year, they became great experts, and in 18 months, the wait in my clinic fell from eight months to two weeks. And anyone in New Mexico could get treatment close to their home.”

Project ECHO got its big break in 2011 when a ground-breaking paper was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the premier medical publications in the world. The paper demonstrated that rural physicians could give a chemotherapy-like regimen to their patients, producing similar results to that of university specialists on-site.

“The paper came out in the middle of the night on the web in 2011, and when I got up in the morning, I had emails from all over the world telling me, you know, we also want to replicate this model in our country,” said Arora. Over the years, tens of thousands of doctors from around the globe have been able to bring specialized treatment to their patients.

With nearly 200 countries now participating in Project ECHO, places like Uganda now have better tools to fight infections and diseases. While Project ECHO’s current outreach is already impressive, according to Dr. Arora, it is only the beginning. “We want to change the world, and we want to improve the lives of one billion people by 2025,” says Arora.

Project ECHO will be celebrating its 20th anniversary at the MetaECHO 2023 Global Conference in September. The event will feature keynote speakers, discussions of sustainable progress in the model, and the first-ever “ECHO Excellence” awards.