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How Telehealth Helps Docs Help the Underserved

A new study published in the June 2 online issue of the New England Journal of Medicine and the June 9 print edition reveals that telehealth can help doctors help the underserved. Researchers at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center (UNMHSC) developed a model called Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes (ECHO) to bring effective treatment to those with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection in underserved areas by providing state-of-the-art medical knowledge to primary care providers and nurses.

Community-based medical teams (including physicians and nurses) participated in weekly clinics with specialists using videoconference or teleconference lines. They jointly discussed patients’ medical history, reviewed lab results and other findings and collaborated on treatment plans using evidence-based treatment approaches.

After studying outcomes for 407 patients undergoing treatment for HCV infection at 21 community settings, they found that the HCV infection was cured at a similar rate for patients treated at these community-based settings as patients treated at the university clinic.

Although treatment for HCV is available and effective, it has been known to cause serious side effects and has to be managed by a medical team as a result. Surgical scheduling, care and treatment aren’t available outside of university medical centers in Las Vegas, which makes Project ECHO so important.

Another important factor is that because most of the patients at the community setting were Hispanic, the study also increased treatment for underserved and minority patients. AHRQ’s 2010 National Healthcare Quality Report (released in February) revealed that Hispanics had worse access to integrated medical care and health services.

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