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Mentorship program helps doctors treat opioid use disorders

Project ECHO
Dr. Karen Hartwell, left, and Rachel Grater conduct a tele-mentoring session.

Drug overdoses killed more than 93,000 Americans in 2020 - which represents a 30 percent increase in overdose deaths from 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One reason for the increase is that fentanyl has been added to the heroin supply as well as cocaine and methamphetamine, according to Dr. Karen Hartwell, an associate professor in the Addiction Sciences Division in the Department of Psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Dr. Hartwell said the COVID-19 pandemic was also a contributing factor as well as the lack of healthcare providers who are comfortable or trained to prescribe the life-saving medication, buprenorphine. To combat this, Dr. Hartwell co-directs a tele-mentoring program called Project ECHO for Opioid Use Disorders. The ECHO model uses telehealth platforms to connect providers to a hub of experts from an academic medical center.

“The whole goal of ECHO is to advance evidence-based practices in underserved areas,” Dr. Hartwell said.

Through the ECHO sessions, providers receive peer support and through mentorship on a virtual platform. One important part of the project is to provide training courses for providers who need to complete an 8-hour waiver training course before they can prescribe buprenorphine.

Rachel Grater, Outreach Coordinator for the Center of Telehealth Project ECHO and Women’s Reproductive Behavioral Health, said any speciality can be a topic of an ECHO.

“Having continuous access to professional mentorship and being part of a community is incredibly helpful to providers, especially in a rural state,” Grater said. “We know that there’s vast health disparities across our state so if we create ECHO’s that are based on the healthcare needs of our communities, we can improve lives and we can improve our state’s healthcare outcomes.”