Opinion Columns & Blogs

New WSU medical school would be good investment

In 1917 – when life expectancy for the American male was 48 years and 1 percent of homes had indoor plumbing — the Legislature saw fit to ensure there would be only one publicly funded medical school in Washington. Times have changed; one medical school cannot keep pace with the growing demand for medical doctors.

The Legislature supports a second publicly funded medical school because our state needs more primary care doctors, more opportunities for students to fill that need, and a new model that brings training opportunities into community settings. House Bill 1559 passed the House 81-17 and the Senate 47-1. With Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature, we will have a WSU School of Medicine.

Washington ranks 48th in the country in per capita medical students we graduate. At the same time, two-thirds of our talented students who go to an MD-granting medical school have to attend expensive out-of-state schools.

Many will never return to practice in Washington where there simply aren’t enough doctors. If they do, the higher debts they’ve amassed will push them out of primary care where they’re needed and into more lucrative specialty fields.

A simple fact: Our health care needs have far outgrown what a century-old law now allows. The University of Washington School of Medicine, its reputation deservedly impeccable, simply cannot meet our needs by itself, much less the four other Western states it serves.

It’s time for Washington to evolve. WSU has proposed a new medical school that not only would provide long-term growth potential our state needs but a community-based model that distributes training opportunities across the state.

Rather than build a teaching hospital, WSU plans to partner with existing state hospitals and clinics to house clinical experiences for medical students in their third and fourth years. This puts them in community settings where they will one day live and work.

This is a natural fit for our state’s land grant research university, as WSU already has a physical presence in every county. Its colleges of Nursing and Pharmacy already have developed relationships with hospitals and clinics where medical students may one day train.

WSU already has programs in rural high schools that will help create a pipeline of qualified and motivated medical students, students who come from underserved communities and have a desire to return to those communities to practice. Because WSU already has the facilities in Spokane to provide instruction for students in their first two years, the cost of expanding medical education is fiscally sound.

Some will argue the state simply needs more residency slots for medical school graduates to train. It’s true Washington needs more, and there is good work underway to achieve that. But here’s the rub. Washington today produces only 120 medical school graduates to apply for the more than 400 first-year residency slots.

We know students are most likely to establish a practice in Washington if they attend medical school and conduct their residency here. Any strategy to increase the supply of physicians in underserved areas that does not authorize new medical school capacity has a gaping hole.

A new medical school will be healthy for our economy, drawing good jobs, federal research dollars and the opportunity to develop new industries. The University of Washington School of Medicine is a great example of this, generating $5.7 billion in economic impact in 2011. Because we have only one medical school, Washington ranked 25th nationally in economic impact generated by medical education. States similar in population, like Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, place well ahead because of the presence of multiple medical schools.

We’ve come around on indoor plumbing. In a growing state of 7 million people, time has come for another medical school. WSU’s proposal for a second publicly funded medical school in Washington is a step forward for our citizens, our students and our economy.