The School of Medicine’s rural healthcare initiative, Project ECHO, received a $10 million grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation as the program expands into the cancer field with the goal of bringing top-quality care to cancer patients living in rural and underserved areas within the U.S. and Africa.

“We are very excited and grateful to have received this $10 million grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation to expand current efforts in cancer and to leverage the ECHO model to train other providers in cancer prevention, screening, diagnosis, treatment, survivorship and palliative care,” said Sarah Zalud-Cerrato, strategic support manager for ECHO.

The opportunity to leverage the ECHO model for cancer in Africa is particularly exciting, she said, given the tremendous need for additional access to cancer prevention, screening, diagnosis, care and treatment within Africa.

The ways in which Project ECHO will use this grant to bring top-quality care to cancer patients living in rural and underserved areas in the U.S. and Africa is through continued expansion of the ECHO model for cancer throughout the U.S. and in one country in Africa, Zalud-Cerrato said.

“Similar to our many other initiatives, we will work with academic medical centers, community hospitals and other champions who share our mission and vision to de-monopolize specialized medical and health knowledge in the cancer space and to overcome disparities in access to health care for cancer and other diseases,” she said.

The goal of the project is to leverage the proven ECHO model to train oncologists, primary care clinicians, mid-levels, community health workers, community health educators and others to increase their knowledge in cancer prevention and treatment, and to improve the quality of cancer care around the country, Zalud-Carrato said.

The ECHO model links expert interdisciplinary specialist teams with primary clinicians through teleECHO clinics, she said, in which experts mentor primary care clinicians to help them manage their patient cases and share their expertise via mentoring.

“Project ECHO has a record of accomplishment in improving provider capacity and improving care in rural and underserved areas,” Zalud-Carrato said. “To date, more than 120 partners in 22 countries around the world are replicating the ECHO model for more than 55 different conditions.”

Erika Harding, director of Replication Initiatives, said that a few years ago there really was not a vision of how well ECHO would be able to address cancer care concerns. But many of ECHO’s partners began to be productive in other areas of healthcare, opening ECHO’s eyes to the potential the model had in the cancer field.

“This grant is one of the number of large grants we received recently demonstrating that major funders are in agreement that the ECHO model can really change the game in terms of improving access to healthcare in cancer and other areas of need around the world,” Harding said. “I think it’s a great thing. It’s a great opportunity for us to do more great work.”

A premier cancer center using the ECHO model should teach far more people to provide high quality cancer care than they themselves could do directly, Harding said.

This is primarily because Echo is fundamentally a teaching tool allowing specialists to teach others what they know, enabling it to reach more people.

“It is not a direct patient service organization; we expand access to care by expanding the capacity of the system to provide a certain kind of care,” Harding said.

Sanjeev Arora, the founder and director of Project ECHO, said the initiative had not had a massive penetration into the field of cancer. The $10 million will be used to bring the ECHO model to improve the continuum of cancer care in the United States and in South Africa by bringing the ECHO model to improve preventive cancer care.

“All over the world people, underserved patients have a difficult time accessing best practice cancer care,” he said.

Arora said 50 percent of cancers in the world are preventable, and yet patients aren’t treated because they don’t receive the appropriate support.

“A lot of cancer in the United States is diagnosed too late, especially in minorities. For example, in African American women cancer is diagnosed much later then they would be diagnosed in whites,” he said.

To prevent these late diagnoses, ECHO can be used for a variety of programs such as for the screening of the human papillomavirus vaccine and for training of people on how to do PAP smears, Arora said.

“So if we bring screen programs into communities with ECHO then we can save lives that way, and that would be a very important thing to do from our perspective,” he said.

Nichole Harwood is a reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @Nolidoli1.