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Medical residencies get focus

More needed to advance program

The first-year medical program entering its third year in Spokane is already changing minds in Seattle about physician training, but expanding residency opportunities is the key to anchoring more newly trained doctors in Eastern Washington, officials said Friday.

Dr. Ken Roberts, head of the WWAMI Spokane Education Program, said starting from zero in 2008 required the bootstrapping of faculty, administration, and doctors and other resources from within the community. Despite the improvisation, he said, many students from the first class are returning to Spokane for their third year of training.

Some are taking clerkships in under-served rural communities, where program supporters hope they will build relationships that induce new doctors to join or open practices.

Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho created WWAMI in the early 1970s to put students on a track that takes them from first-year medical education in their home states to the University of Washington School of Medicine. The program expanded into Spokane two years ago, with 20 medical and eight dental students.

But the number of new doctors still falls far short of the need.

Dr. Suzanne Allen, the School of Medicine’s vice dean for regional affairs, said a scaled-up Spokane program, including a yet-to-be-started second year, would need to graduate 100 to 120 doctors annually to replace retiring doctors statewide, and expand access to health care.

She said WWAMI has a bright future in Spokane, but the payoff depends on graduate medical education – residencies in hospitals and clinics. A summit to explore ways of increasing residencies in the region will be held next month in Spokane, she said.

Washington State University Vice Provost Dr. Bryan Slinker said doctors tend to establish practices within 100 miles of the facilities where they were residents.

Dr. Gary Knox, the president of the Spokane County Medical Society, said the city was not on his map until he arrived for a residency.

Providing a doctor with graduate education opportunities, increasing the likelihood he or she will stay, is cheaper than recruiting a doctor from outside the area into a practice, Knox said.

Slinker said medical education is a seven-year process and graduate education is part of the “full-meal deal” for Spokane.

He said the community should be bold enough to realize its potential as the next great medical center, one endorsed by a consultant study that envisioned a health care complex and associated research facilities pumping $1.6 billion into Spokane’s economy.