Texas A&M Rural and Community Health Institute providing training for 300 nursing homes to help prevent viral outbreaks

BRYAN-COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) – The A&M Rural and Community Health Institute (ARCHI) is providing a valuable training program to help nursing and retirement homes prevent and contain viral outbreaks like COVID-19.

Because a large number of older people, many with underlying health conditions, live in dormitory-style residences in most of these places, the pandemic has struck nursing homes particularly hard. The institute recognized an opportunity to help make them safer for residents and staff alike by getting involved in the Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes, better known as ECHO, Program.

“Because nursing homes were kind of a perfect storm for serious and deadly virus spread, they needed to be sure that these places were getting the most up-to-date information to protect patients and staff,” ARCHI Executive Director Dr. Nancy Dickey said.

Dickey says the ECHO Program was started roughly a decade ago when doctors at the University of New Mexico realized they had tremendous amounts of geography to cover with a very small number of physicians. To cut back on wait times for patients to see specialists while also freeing up those specialists to serve more patients, health care providers created a program where they could train doctors and nurses in smaller towns to treat these specific illnesses and conditions.

“That process, ECHO, has been extraordinarily successful for heart disease, heart failure, diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic problems, trying to be sure that as medicine rapidly rolls forward, those people who are working on the front lines are able to stay up to date since their last training exposure,” Dickey said.

ARCHI believed extending the ECHO Program to nursing homes was a natural step due to how hard they were hit by the novel coronavirus. Through ECHO, ARCHI provides training via telecommunications to staff at 300 nursing homes in five states, although most of them are located in Texas. The first sessions began in November.

“We’re doing nine hour-and-a-half ECHO sessions every week for 16 weeks on infection control, now vaccines – who gets it, who can’t get it – on how to have safe visiting policies,” Dickey said. “What to do if you have a COVID case, and how to rapidly respond to that so it doesn’t spread to other places.”

Legacy Nursing and Rehabilitation in Bryan is one of the participating training facilities. Legacy Management Group Quality and Compliance Director Kim Jones says the training has really helped them do some root-cause analysis that’s helped them create better policies that result in better care outcomes.

“A huge benefit to participating in the program is really just being able to collaborate with other nursing homes in the community,” Jones said. “Everyone shares what they’ve done right and wrong and we all learn from each other.”

Jones also says they’ve used the tools the program has given them to perform case studies that have gone a long way in helping them self-evaluate processes they have improved.

“We learned a lot about transferring residents from one unit to another, keeping them as isolated as possible and following all the proper precautions,” Jones said. “It’s helped us really look at our quality improvement program as a whole.”

Now that the rollout of a vaccine has begun, the program has even added a curriculum to help homes with that process as well.

“The second group on the list for who gets vaccine are nursing home residents and staff,” Dickey said. “The whole question about vaccines has kind of been an addition to the planned curriculum, but a very welcome one, because it may in fact begin to protect these folks so we can open up visitation for them.”

“They provided some good information on once we get the vaccine getting staff on board, families on board and residents, consent, everything that goes along with it,” Jones said.

Jones says what the nursing home staff is learning isn’t specific to COVID-19. She says most of the tools will be helpful for any viral outbreak that might occur even after the pandemic ends.

“The tools that they’re bringing to the program are helpful in really any situation you have come up in the facility,” Jones said. “It’s not geared just toward COVID. They have a lot of great best practices that they’re teaching us.”

“The ECHO programs are things that people might watch out for,” Dickey said. “They were originally planned for doctors to talk to colleagues in subspecialties, and now we’re using them for all kinds of education, so ECHO is something you may hear more about. I can’t think of one that’s more important than the one reaching out to the nursing homes in our area.”

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