Building mental health capacity: exploring the role of adaptive expertise in the ECHO virtual learning model

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With the proliferation of virtual learning programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is increased need to understand learner experiences and impact on developing expertise. Project Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes (Project ECHO®) is an established hub-and-spoke tele-education model aimed at building capacity and expertise in primary care providers. Our qualitative study explored how learning experiences within an ECHO mental health care program supported provider learning and ability to solve complex clinical problems. We sampled ECHO sessions across a 34-week cycle and analyzed audio transcribed data. Two individuals coded participant interactions during 2-hour recorded sessions using an iterative, constant comparative methodology. The authors identified four key mechanisms of learning in ECHO: (1) fostering participants' productive struggle with cases, (2) development of an integrated understanding, (3) collaborative reformulation of cases, and (4) generation of conceptual solutions based on a new understanding. Throughout the ECHO sessions, learning was observed to be multidirectional from both the hub-to-spoke and between spoke sites. Despite the widespread implementation of Project ECHO and other virtual learning models, a paucity of research has focused on mechanisms of virtual learning within these models. Our study demonstrated a bidirectional exchange of knowledge between hub specialist teams and primary care provider spokes that aligned with the development of adaptive expertise through specific learning experiences in Project ECHO. Moreover, the ECHO structure may further support the development of adaptive expertise to better prepare participants to address patients' complex mental health needs.