Opinion Columns & Blogs

First, do no harm to UW’s top-ranked medical school

The recent news that the University of Washington remains the nation’s top-ranked medical school in primary care, and family and rural medicine, as it has for more than two decades, is recognition we can all cheer. When the national spotlight from U.S. News and World Report shines brightly on one of our state’s public institutions, it reflects well on all Washingtonians.

The news gives me particular pride. Forty-four years ago as governor I helped launch WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho), a unique, five-state educational partnership between the UW School of Medicine, Eastern Washington and our neighboring states. Our goal is to train primary care doctors in local communities throughout the region to improve access to health care where people need it most. The idea started with a simple suggestion from a rural doctor in Omak: “Send your students to me and I will teach them what it is like to practice in Omak.”

Today, UW medical students train in the most diverse medical education program in the country. A massive network of hospitals, health clinics, classroom sites and physicians in hundreds of urban and rural communities across the five-state region work together to train the next generation of doctors for our state and region. The UW’s WWAMI is a true testament to the power of partnership — a rarity in health care and higher education. Its success demonstrates what can be accomplished when institutions reject silos and arms races to come together for the greater good of our communities. It’s good for taxpayers, too. By working together and reducing administrative bureaucracy, Washington currently educates doctors for one of the lowest costs in the nation.

I couldn’t imagine the heights WWAMI would reach all those years ago.

I can’t imagine a more potentially critical turning point in the program today.

The Legislature is currently grappling with how best to address the growing and changing health care workforce needs of our state. A lot of attention has been focused on authorizing and establishing a new Washington State University medical school in Spokane. While the allure of building new has always been popular in Olympia, the cost to state taxpayers — WSU estimates costs at nearly $47 million annually once the school is fully built — deserves careful attention in light of existing fiscal challenges, such as fully funding K-12 education and fixing our broken mental health system.

If we’re really going to solve our health care workforce challenges without breaking the state’s already strained budget, we need to start by investing in what works. The state should not establish a new WSU medical school at the expense of protecting and growing the University of Washington’s existing medical school in Spokane. WSU’s current medical school proposal redirects state funding from WWAMI to WSU. This would effectively end UW Medicine in Spokane, cutting the number of publicly educated medical students in the state by one-third at a time when we need to be educating more doctors, not fewer. Even if WSU began to seek accreditation of a new medical school this year, it wouldn’t produce a new doctor for nearly a decade. We can’t afford to move backward.

Whether the Legislature decides to spend resources on WSU’s new medical school or not, lawmakers must protect the nation’s No. 1 public medical school with a “do no harm” stance. They must ensure that the UW School of Medicine in Spokane continues to receive existing funds and retains the use of facilities so it can operate for years to come.

A lot has changed since I signed the bill to establish the WWAMI program over 40 years ago. But the national recognition of UW School of Medicine last week demonstrates that ideas — born in Omak — that put the health and well-being of all our state’s citizens first can truly be transformative. Let’s continue to build on Washington’s record of innovation and success.