FINDING a primary-care physician is difficult in most of Washington, even for a well-insured and health-conscious citizen. Especially in rural and Eastern Washington, the nearest doctor can be more than an hour away, and many are too booked to see new patients.
Nearly half the counties in Washington have fewer than 10 doctors per 10,000 people. By comparison, the national average is closer to 27 per 10,000. Outside of King County, the physician supply is simply inadequate.
The University of Washington’s excellent program is the only medical school for a population greater than 10 million people in five states. In the 1970s, the UW created a regional medical education program called WWAMI (for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) as an outreach program to small communities. The program trains medical students at extension sites throughout the five states.
The extension site in Spokane for this program has regrettably been mislabeled by some, including the UW School of Medicine website,as the “Spokane Medical School.” This misleading label gives the impression that there already is a medical school in Spokane and that there is no need for a new one.
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UW operates the single highest-funded public medical school in America (based on total state and federal funding), but the prestigious program admits only 120 Washington students a year. Washington state needs to graduate almost four times as many doctors annually to approach the national average relative to its population. States with populations of similar size have two to four medical schools to meet their needs.
Every year, about 250 promising, highly qualified students leave Washington, permanently in many cases, to attend medical school elsewhere. There simply are not enough seats in their own state to train them to fill Washington’s physician shortage.
The solution is straightforward: Establish an additional medical school in Washington. Our group, the Washington Alliance of Teaching Physicians, has been meeting with and educating legislators for the past two years about the very real need for an additional Washington medical school. In a 2013 letter, we asked for support from Gov. Jay Inslee before Washington State University commissioned a feasibility study about starting a new school.
We are currently UW School of Medicine clinical faculty, and we know what the existing regional medical program, WWAMI, can and cannot deliver. There were 86 Washington students in UW’s 1972 entering medical school class, when Washington had only about 3.5 million people. Since then, the WWAMI regional program has added only 34 slots for Washington students, while the state population doubled.
The WWAMI medical education network is important and needed, but it cannot be all things to all people. The extension sites were simply not designed to perform as full-fledged schools.
As UW clinical faculty, we are invested in UW’s students and the WWAMI system. The single best support for WWAMI’s future is collaboration with the resources and talent of an accredited medical school in Eastern Washington.
UW President Michael Young and WSU President Elson Floyd both understand our call for new collaborations. From the beginning, the new medical school must contribute to the existing education resources and networks. And the established institutions must engage with new partners to serve the needs of all Washington residents. Patients and students are more important than preserving academic empires and egos. President Young and UW leadership should fully support physicians’ call for WSU to create the new school that Washington needs.
WSU Spokane is the optimal home for the new school. The clinical faculty in Eastern Washington have taught UW-WWAMI medical students for years. Spokane has the clinicians and teaching settings to support the new school. An innovative Teaching Health Center has expanded the primary-care residencies at this end of the state, governed jointly by WSU, Empire Health Foundation and Providence. WSU Spokane has first-tier pharmacy and nursing programs. It is the ideal setting to educate the interdisciplinary-team doctors of the future. Expensive new construction and infrastructure are not needed.
It is time for a new medical school to serve Washington’s educational and health needs, now and in the years to come.
Henry Mroch, left, and Jeremy Graham are Spokane-based doctors who represent the Washington Alliance of Teaching Physicians.