Health care has been a cornerstone of the Spokane economy for more than a century, yet the city has perhaps never had a facility completely dedicated to physician education. It soon will.
In fact, it will have a cluster of buildings on the Riverpoint Campus for teaching not just doctors, but dentists, nurses and pharmacists as well.
The $70 million Biomedical and Health Sciences Building for which ground was broken Wednesday fills out a medical suite that includes a Health Sciences Building completed in 2002 and a Nursing Center finished in 2009. In all likelihood, completion of the biomedical facility will be the extent of significant state-funded construction for some time to come, but supporters envision something much more. By 2030, according to one study, a four-year medical school and associated public and private enterprises will have created 9,000 new jobs, generating $1.6 billion in additional economic activity.
Just as importantly, students graduating after four years will add to the stock of doctors practicing in rural areas, not just in Eastern Washington, but in Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, the other states that contribute resources and students to the WWAMI program.
The region may be short as many as 1,000 doctors by 2025.
The University of Washington has been a leader in medical education for decades. For 18 years running, in fact, the UW School of Medicine has been the highest-ranked institution for primary care instruction.
Yet WWAMI provides a year of medical education for about $65,000, $40,000 less than the average for all medical schools in the United States.
How? By the sharing of resources among participating institutions, including Washington State University and the University of Idaho.
Officials hope that will be taken to a new level at Riverpoint, where first-year medical and dental students take some of the same courses and work with pharmacy and nursing students to develop a collaborative approach to patient care.
Of course, there are challenges ahead, like getting the rest of the money needed to complete construction. The Legislature is highly unlikely to balk, but other funds will be needed, as well. The state pays doctors to teach students in their offices. Clerkships, as they are called, are one of the best ways of introducing would-be physicians to communities where they may begin to establish bonds that will bring them back once they have their degrees.
Dr. Paul Ramsey, who directs the WWAMI program, says doctors can earn more treating patients than they can teaching students, but agree to participate because of the satisfaction teaching gives them and the window it opens to the latest developments in medicine.
The key to expanding enrollment in Spokane from 20 students today to 100 in the future is finding more doctors willing to teach, as well as more post-graduate learning opportunities, Ramsey says, adding that communities like Colville enjoy excellent medical care in part because of WWAMI.
The ground’s been broken, but there’s still a lot of ground to cover.