Patient Care

UR Medicine Helping Aging Adults in Rural Communities

Apr. 20, 2014
Booming population lacks mental health and dementia care
More than half a million older adults live in rural areas across New York State, and this number is expected to increase dramatically over the next two decades.  At the same time, the number of senior citizens with mental illness and dementia is also on the rise.  Unfortunately, rural communities often lack mental health specialists and are unable to provide appropriate care for these patients.

“Most rural primary care practices have difficulty obtaining advice from behavioral health professionals or making patient referrals,” says Yeates Conwell, M.D., director of Geriatric Psychiatry at UR Medicine.  “All too often, this means their elderly patients’ mental health needs are not being met.”

To address this burgeoning problem, UR Medicine is introducing Project ECHO.  The telemedicine program will connect a team of UR Medicine specialists with up to 120 rural primary care physicians (PCP’s) in 23 counties throughout western and central New York.  The UR Medicine team, comprised of physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and pharmacists, will hold bi-weekly videoconferences with the PCP’s to help develop their expertise in geriatric mental health and dementia care.  Participating clinicians will have the opportunity to discuss individual cases, as well as learn from others.

“Over time, the participating primary practices will become regional centers of excellence on geriatric mental health issues,” says Michael Hasselberg, Ph.D., R.N., NPP-BC, who is leading Project ECHO.

Supported by a $345,000 grant from the private, statewide New York State Health Foundation, UR Medicine will soon begin recruiting practices in Monroe, Ontario, Livingston, Steuben, Yates, Genesee, Seneca, Schuyler, Wyoming, and Alleghany counties.  Practices in 13 other counties, from St. Lawrence to Chautauqua, will also be offered an opportunity to join the program. Practices do not have to be affiliated with UR Medicine to participate.  The Health Foundation for Western & Central New York also contributed $50,000.

The UR Medicine program is based on one started in New Mexico to help rural patients with hepatitis C and chronic liver disease.  That effort has expanded to include many other complex, specialty care issues, and Hasselberg says that could happen here as well.  Hasselberg has attended ECHO training at the University of New Mexico.

“This is an exciting model of health care education and delivery that could improve the treatment of multiple complex diseases for rural and underserved patients throughout our region,” he says.

The two-year project makes use of state-of-the-art technology recently installed at the University of Rochester’s Center for Experiential Learning (CEL).  The center provides innovative solutions to educate health care professionals throughout UR Medicine and beyond, improving patient care across upstate New York.

“Project ECHO is an example of how we can help providers continue learning, no matter where they are or how long they’ve been practicing,” notes Sarah Peyre, Ed.D., director of CEL.  “Ultimately, patients throughout upstate New York will receive better care.”