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Editorial: Medical education expansion needs buy-in

A week ago Friday was “match day” for the first class of students to complete their studies at the WWAMI medical school program in Spokane.

Six of the 20 matched with Spokane-area residencies, the most ever for the University of Washington School of Medicine, which administers the Spokane program in conjunction with Washington State University. Odds are, those doctors will remain in Eastern Washington, where they will help remedy an ongoing shortage.

If so, the potential that Spokane-trained doctors would remain in the region will have been realized, as it has been hundreds of times since WWAMI was established 40 years ago to educate and retain more doctors in the participating states: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

About 4,600 doctors in five states, including 400 in Spokane, help train WWAMI students. That multistate distribution of students into every corner of the region has been one of the program’s unique characteristics.

Students on the UW/WSU Riverpoint Campus still transfer to Seattle for their second year of training, but a pilot program to be launched in 2013 will allow them to stay in Spokane and root themselves more firmly in the Inland Northwest.

Spokane businesses, individuals and foundations are raising $2.3 million to sustain the pilot for two years, with the expectation its success will convince legislators to provide the money in the future. The community, which pushed doggedly to get a medical school here, is putting its money where its maxilla is.

WWAMI is a bargain.

The average cost of medical education in the United States is $105,000 per year, per student. WWAMI does the job for $65,000, yet is consistently named best program for educating rural doctors and family practitioners.

The curricula do not vary all that much, but the sharing of ideas and best practices across the large network of teachers and clinicians constantly refines its presentation. That will be one of the goals for the Spokane second-year program.

Paul Ramsey, dean of the UW School of Medicine, says the second-year program must be updated to keep pace with the rapid change in medical science, while being mindful of funding cuts by the Washington Legislature.

Much else remains to be done. Residency openings in Eastern Washington, as they are throughout the WWAMI states, are far below the national average. Even the Puget Sound area is short of positions. Ramsey says adding capacity will take several years.

Eventually, the Spokane campus and a new Biomedical and Health Sciences Building could accommodate more than 100 medical students a year, about one-half the number trained in Seattle. They will study side-by-side with RIDE UW/Eastern Washington University dental students, on a campus that also contains the WSU College of Pharmacy and School of Nursing.

Spokane has pledged $2.3 million to help make all this happen. In two years, we’ll need a match from Olympia.

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