Opinion Columns & Blogs

State has a limited budget for medical education

Spokane already has a four-year medical school at the Riverpoint campus in Spokane thanks to years of successful collaboration between the University of Washington and Washington State University.

Our Spokane Medical School contributes to and shares in the high marks received by the UW School of Medicine which ranks #1 in the country in primary care, family medicine and rural medicine according to U.S. News & World Report, for over 20 years. Those high marks in rural medicine would not have occurred without a presence in Spokane.

Spokane’s Medical School started in 2008 as an expansion of the WWAMI program -- a regional medical education program provided by the UW School of Medicine in partnership with universities from the WWAMI states (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho), with WSU-Pullman an active partner for 42 years.

Initially, students from WWAMI states would spend their first year in the UW School of Medicine in their home state, the second year in Seattle and elective third and fourth year rotations in the WWAMI states. This was partially funded by the states outside of Washington because they didn’t have their own medical school and facts suggest that physicians commonly stay where they have done some of their training.

Because of the connection with UW in Seattle, this opportunity has been available to every medical student in the country for years. When I was accepted to the UW School of Medicine in 1985, I had never lived outside of Seattle. The WAMI program (Wyoming was not an option at that time) allowed me to travel and live in Boise, Missoula, Great Falls and Spokane for some of my third-year electives guiding my eventual return to Spokane in 1993, where I have since lived and worked as a physician.

Everyone agrees that this program is not enough to overcome the shortage of doctors in rural areas. So in 2008, the UW in collaboration with WSU and the Spokane business community, made it possible for students to spend their entire third and fourth years in Spokane. This past year, an added opportunity for students to complete their second year was added in Spokane as well.

With that final piece of collaborative work we achieved the mutual goal of a four-year medical school in Spokane. Despite that success it is still a new program and class size was not initially filled. That led some to suggest that it is not a top priority of the UW School of Medicine and/or WWAMI and that Spokane needs to create its own start-up WSU Medical School.

Everyone agrees that our existing medical school in Spokane is small and insufficient as it exists today. The most efficient, cost-effective plan is to avoid duplication and expand WWAMI by quadrupling the number of medical students over the next five years at our existing Spokane Medical School. This will require support and funding approval by the Washington state Legislature in 2015.

No other state in the WWAMI region has its own medical school and Eastern Washington should not try to be the first. This is not a competition. It’s not us vs. them. It’s about the state of Washington subsidizing medical education on a limited budget for the best students we can attract to our state.

The best applicants want to attend the best medical schools and those of us who live in rural areas should want and deserve the same standard of excellence in medical education for our doctors that is already provided in Seattle.

Expanding the program that already exists in Spokane is the quickest and surest way to solve our physician shortage in Eastern Washington.