May 21, 2021

Buckeye Health Plan: Bringing specialist-level care to rural communities

With increased use of telehealth and other tech-based care, health care providers are doing a lot to address the challenges of patients in isolated rural areas. But what about the physicians who live in and serve those same communities? They, too, face isolation — from the professional support that providers in bigger cities enjoy.

Diabetes and weight management problems are common in southeastern Ohio, but endocrinologists are few and far between. Buckeye Health Plan and a roster of partners including Ohio University (OU) are closing that gap with a program that puts the expertise of the university’s top medical professionals within reach of family providers.

Project ECHO — it stands for Extension for Community Health Outcomes — originally was the brainchild of Dr. Sanjeev Arora, a New Mexico liver-disease specialist who was perhaps the best in the state at treating hepatitis C.  He was inspired by the thought of treating more patients.

Dr. Arora couldn’t clone himself, but he could multiply his expertise by making a partner of any physician who wanted to learn cutting-edge hepatitis-C care from him via online sessions. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine later found that Dr. Arora’s “students” provided a level of patient care that was as good as that given by specialists at a university.

Now, community providers are learning how to care for patients with complex conditions through Project ECHO sessions around the world. The Weitzman Institute, a research center for community health care, coordinates Project ECHO for Buckeye and OU. Plans are to establish another Project ECHO class later this year to focus on substance use disorders.

Ninety-five providers signed on to the diabetes-focused Project ECHO, recruited through the alumni network of the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-HCOM), Buckeye’s network and a coalition of rural providers in a 21-county area in the region.

“The goal is to make our rural practitioners more confident and more able to navigate the complexities.”

During the biweekly virtual sessions, members discuss their most challenging cases. They learn from the medical school’s leading specialists about innovations in diabetes care. Said Beth Longenecker, dean of the OU-HCOM Athens campus, “It’s a way to connect providers with a specialist to get practical guidance and insights. ‘How does this new wearable monitor work? What do I need to know about this new regimen of insulin?’ The goal is to make our rural practitioners more confident and more able to navigate the complexities.”

Project Echo is only part of the work Buckeye is doing to improve health outcomes in southeastern Ohio. Part of its three-year, $750,000 grant also is paying to expand the university’s Nurse Navigator program, which since 2012 has paired registered nurses with at-risk pregnant women in Athens County.

The navigators meet with women at their doctors’ offices, giving training in safe sleep practices and smoking cessation, and ensuring the women are linked with an obstetrician.

Thanks to the Buckeye grant, the navigator program has expanded to Meigs, Washington and Vinton counties. Navigators help their clients address other social determinants of health, including housing, food insecurity and domestic violence.

Both projects demonstrate that broadening access to health care relies on collaboration between funders like Buckeye and partners such as OU — tailoring their work to the needs of the communities they serve. Said Longenecker, “We adapt as we go to really serve the needs of the group we’re working with.”

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