Dr. Eric Arzubi is leading the charge on Project ECHO in Billings (MTN News)
The mental health of Montanans is a top priority for Billings healthcare providers, one that's now being echoed by the state department of corrections.
Plans for "Project ECHO," a program connects physicians with teleconferencing, were unveiled Wednesday at the Billings Clinic.
ECHO stands for Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes, which is described as a medical education and care management collaborative.
It's a joint effort with the Department of Corrections and Rimrock Foundation.
The project originated in rural New Mexico, as a way to help with vulnerable populations who were experiencing a high rate of Hepatitis C.
Because of the project’s success, it was developed further to include physicians who are treating complicated mental health issues.
For small town physicians, dealing with new or atypical mental health concerns can mean sending patients far away, to bigger cities like Billings, for care.
While physicians are always working to improve their practice with lessons and training, no one patient is the same and new cases frequently arise.
“Patients are not like cars coming down the assembly line,” said Erika Harding, the director of replication for Project ECHO at the University of New Mexico. “They are all different.”
And so is the individuality of Project ECHO, which operates 39 hubs for nearly 30 diseases and conditions in 22 states and five countries outside the U.S.
The project implements a network using video technologies, where care providers can consult with experts for advice on how to help the patient.
Harding pulled up a conference between doctors in the country of Namibia and experts on problems specific to the area.
“Their biggest health concern is AIDS,” said Harding. “That’s not our focus here in the U.S.”
In Montana, the project will begin with a pilot involving the mental health concerns of the state’s inmates.
Dr. Eric Arzubi, a Billings Clinic psychiatrist, said mental health concerns affect two thirds of the prisoners.
The aim is to improve the quality of mental health for prisoners and behavior will follow.
"It's the number one cause of medical disability in the U.S. and as we all know, Montana has the highest rate of suicide in the country,” said Arzubi. “We have a mental health crisis. So like anything that's not treated, it gets worse; severe anxiety, severe depression, bipolar disorder, even schizophrenia, affects people’s ability to make decisions, make good decisions."
Arzubi said he recognizes that improvements to inmates mental health won’t prevent crimes from happening in the first place, but it could impact the recidivism rate of those who do receive help.
The men and women at Alternatives and Passages will be involved in the pilot, which starts in February.
The project will kickoff with a maximum of 40 weekly case presentations and consultations.
Harding said the goal is to impact 1 billion lives by 2025.