Senate unanimously passes telehealth bill

The Government Accountability Office will explore ways to expand telehealth

The Senate on Tuesday voted 97-0 to pass a bill (S 2873) that aims to expand access to care in rural areas through continuing medical education training conducted using telehealth technology.

Companion legislation (HR 5395) is awaiting action in the House.


The bill, called the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act, stems from an initiative at the University of New Mexico that was launched to connect rural patients with health care specialists via a telehealth platform. Under the model, physicians at a central hospital virtually connect with providers at rural health systems to discuss complex cases and improve patient care.

Project ECHO initially focused on providing care for patients with hepatitis C. The initiative has since expanded to address 40 health conditions and is operating in 10 countries.

Legislation details

The bill, introduced by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) in April, would expand Project ECHO as a national model for delivering care in rural areas.

Specifically, the bill would require:

  • HHS and the Health Resources and Services Administration to analyze the model and its effects on provider capacity and workforce issues, as well as quality of care;
  • The Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate "opportunities for increased adoption of such models," as well as how such models can produce costs savings and improve health care; and
  • HHS to report to Congress the results of its analysis and the GAO's study.

Your top three telehealth questions—answered


"We're now one step closer to supporting new ways to train health providers and deliver health care," Schatz said in a statement. "Our bill capitalizes on ... technology to give health professionals in hard-to-reach areas the specialized training they need and help them reach more patients."

Meanwhile, Sanjeev Arora, founder and director of Project ECHO, said, "Medical knowledge is exploding, but it's often not traveling the last mile to ensure that patients get the right care in the right place at the right time. If we can leverage technology to spread best practices through case-based learning and mentoring of providers, we can move knowledge—instead of patients—to get better care to rural and underserved communities across the country" (Landi, Healthcare Informatics, 11/29; Wicklund, mHealth Intelligence, 11/29; Whitman, Modern Healthcare, 11/26; Schatz release, 11/29; Shaw, FierceHealthcare, 11/30).

How to determine staffing needs for direct-to-consumer telehealth

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) telehealth has the potential to remedy the two access challenges that medical groups face: clinician capacity and coverage (extended hours and geographic reach). However, the success of a DTC telehealth program—and its profitability—relies on staffing it to ensure both coverage and efficiency.

Medical groups partnering with a telehealth platform vendor can approach this in a number of ways. Use this decision guide to help you assess the optimal staffing plan for your group.


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