Twice each month, a group of Partners HealthCare primary care doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, behavioral health support specialists, social workers, nurses, care managers, addiction specialists, and other providers gather virtually. On the agenda: how best to assess, treat, and triage the considerable—and growing—number of patients presenting in primary care settings with substance use disorders.

The grand rounds-style discussion is an initiative of the Center for Population Health, whose training and education programs leverage novel technologies and a range of courses to expand knowledge among clinical providers and non-clinical staff, and enhance care.

These bimonthly meetings utilize an educational approach called ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes), initially developed at the University of New Mexico to address hepatitis C. Over online video conferences, the team participates in a brief instructional module taught by an expert—for example, a substance abuse disorder expert covering topics including motivational interviewing or SBIRT training (screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment). What sets ECHO apart from other training methods is the case-based approach discussions, which help participants navigate the complex clinical issues associated with substance use disorders in the primary care setting.

In addition to preparing primary care providers for the wide range of issues encountered in patient interactions, the ECHO sessions are particularly vital for community practices without on-site specialists. “Members of the care team relish the idea of having convenient access to a specialty resource like this, because they are often operating with limited resources,” says Medical Director for Behavioral Health for the Center for Population Health and McLean Hospital’s Chief of Geriatric Psychiatry Brent Forester, MD, MSc. “Integrating behavioral health and general medical care ensures that patients with chronic conditions like substance use disorders receive the most comprehensive care.”

Efforts are underway to expand access to ECHO—currently available at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and Harbor Medical Associates—throughout practices and hospitals.

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