The use of telehealth increased exponentially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing millions of patients with critical face-to-face health care services from the safety and comfort of their own homes. But many who live in Northern New England face limited access to health care services, even with the help of digital health technologies.
The University of New England, with a campus in Biddeford, has been named a key partner in a U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA)-funded program to combat such rural health care shortages by supporting and boosting telehealth education and distribution in Northern New England, according to a university statement.
The Northern New England & New York Telehealth Technology-Enabled Learning Program (NNE-NY TTELP) project, headed by Medical Care Development, Inc. (MCD), will establish UNE as a leader of and hub for telehealth education in the state of Maine and associated rural areas.
The project aims to respond to the impacts of COVID-19 on patients in home and facility based long-term care as well as its impacts on the physical and behavioral health of the region’s rural communities, including effects of emerging virus variants, isolation, and lack of access to behavioral health treatment for residents with substance use disorder. The NNE-NY TTELP will facilitate evidence-based training through Project ECHO (Extension for Community Health Care Outcomes) programs as well as collaborative training resources through an open-access, e-learning portal.
The Northern New England and New York regions are known to be some of the “oldest” communities in the region, with high rates of substance use disorder and behavioral health issues. These challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic due to heightened social isolation and increased rates of overdose and substance use disorder-related deaths. To address these issues, the NNE-NY TTELP will:
• Develop a person-centered learning community that stresses interprofessional care and emphasizes collaborative partnerships between providers and those with lived experience
• Deliver Project ECHO programs to rural primary care and long-term care “spoke sites” across the region to facilitate dissemination of best practice, focused on addressing gaps in services for adults with behavioral health and/or substance use disorder
• Develop accessible tools to support program planning and implementation, including an online portal with self-paced toolkits and other resources to complement live ECHO sessions, and reinforce core learnings
Engage students to facilitate early adoption of best practices and reduce stigma and bias in an all-teach, all-learn approach.
“The goal is to develop curriculum for students to better understand rural health care needs and the how telehealth can help improve health outcomes, so that UNE students will start to become engaged in everything from telehealth to TeleECHO technologies aimed at establishing new clinical health care sites for learning,” said Jennifer Morton, D.N.P., M.P.H., PHNA-BC, director of UNE’s School of Nursing and Population Health.
Through working with UNE program directors and external clinical coordinators, the principles of telehealth will soon be ingrained in health professions curricula across the University, Morton explained, and at clinical sites across the state.
“The goal is to utilize the technology so that students can either participate from a telehealth perspective or in person at clinical sites,” Morton said. “It really is a way for us to build our clinical capacity at a time when we’re very desperate for it.”
“Technology changes rapidly, and the more we can think about integrating technology into care, the better chance we have in improving patient outcomes and access to care,” said Nan Solomons, Ph.D., founding director of UNE’s Center for Excellence in Digital Health, which is partnered on the grant. “Developing these kinds of technologies involve disciplines from all across the University, from the health professions to data science, the P.D. Merrill Makerspace, and the environmental sciences. No matter the area of study, it’s important for students to know how to look at data and not be afraid of it.”
The University of New Hampshire Institute for Health Policy and Practice will serve as the lead ECHO hub for the project. Other key partners on the grant include the University of Vermont, University of Maine Center on Aging, Maine Medical Association, and MaineHealth.
To be included on the grant among other world-class institutions, Morton said, speaks highly of UNE’s leadership in key patient-centered care.
“That we were invited to participate in this grant demonstrates our capacity for engagement with some other big players in this arena,” Morton remarked. “From a telehealth perspective, our department through our ECHO work has really established ourselves as a leader in the state.”