August 16, 2009 in Opinion

Editorial: Four-year med school a win-win regional goal

 

The idea of a four-year medical school in Spokane has tantalized civic leaders here for years, but the chances have never looked better.

“Chance” is the operative word, but the picture will be clearer in a few months, when two committees involving the University of Washington School of Medicine and Washington State University complete a feasibility study regarding medical education in Spokane.

For the last couple of years, Spokane has had a small taste of its own medical school, thanks to a $25 million investment by the Legislature in 2007 to start sending 20 students a year to Spokane for their first year, beginning in 2008.

Under its commendable WWAMI program – Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho – UW was already sending 20 first-year students to sites in each state, including Pullman and Moscow, Idaho. The addition of Spokane marked the first expansion of WWAMI in its 37 years.

The second round of first-year students arrived this past week and have begun their initial studies. But like last year’s class of 20, these students will receive the second year of instruction in Seattle before moving on to community clerkships. Studies say medical students are more likely to establish their practice where they complete their schooling, meaning that the Spokane area’s looming shortage of physicians would be addressed better if the full four years of training were based here.

Reversing the decline isn’t the only reason to press for further expansion of the current Spokane offerings. A UW medical school branch here would dovetail with the community’s role as a regional health care center. It would also facilitate greater research opportunities for a variety of health-related programs at WSU.

Rich Hadley, president of Greater Spokane Inc., has called a four-year medical school a “game-changer” for the Spokane economy, and he’s optimistic that it could be a reality as soon as five years from now – not with just 20 new students a year, but eventually as many as 100.

Medical schools need high-tech facilities and skilled faculty. Both federal and state governments will have to be convinced to make the necessary investments.

The pending feasibility study will provide more details, but there’s already evidence to support this long-discussed concept. While the UW medical school has an exemplary reputation for quality education, it has an unenviable ranking for producing doctors for its own state: second-lowest among all states on a per capita basis, according to a study done for the Spokane County Medical Society by Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis. It’s even lower when measuring the entire five-state region.

As the Legislature recognized in 2007, Spokane is positioned to play a role in addressing the physician shortage. That was an important step, but there’s more to be done.


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