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WSU wants own med school in Spokane

University leaders say region is underserved by UW

Washington State University officials want to launch the state’s second public medical school in Spokane.

“We can do better as a state to infuse more physicians into the marketplace,” said WSU President Elson Floyd. “We will look at establishing a new medical school for our state – a new, independently accredited one sponsored by WSU.”

The school has commissioned a feasibility study that’s due at the end of June.

While WSU Spokane now offers four years of medical education, the program is accredited through the University of Washington School of Medicine.

That setup doesn’t offer enough opportunity to in-state students who want to become doctors, nor does it bring Spokane and Eastern Washington enough doctors to meet growing demand, Floyd said Thursday.

UW offers medical education in Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho in partnership with schools in those states through a 40-year-old program called WWAMI.

The competitive, top-ranked medical school admits 120 students from Washington each year.

The national average for in-state student admissions to medical schools is 440, said WSU Spokane spokeswoman Terren Roloff.

Randy Hodgins, UW’s vice president of external affairs, said the school is preparing to ask the Legislature for more money to educate more doctors in Spokane, a plan announced by the two schools in Spokane last fall. The goal is to have 80 first-year and 80 second-year med students on the WSU Spokane campus by 2019, up from 20 first-years and 19 second-years now.

“We want to stay in partnership with WSU, I can’t state that strongly enough,” Hodgins said.

But Floyd and WSU Spokane Chancellor Lisa Brown said that rate of growth won’t be enough.

With more people getting medical care as a result of the Affordable Care Act, plus the aging of the population, there’s a big demand for doctors, especially primary care physicians, they said.

“One medical school for five states is not where the rest of the country is headed right now,” Brown said.

Missouri has five public medical schools, noted Colleen Kerr, WSU’s chief government relations officer. New medical schools have been created in Michigan and Florida, she said.

Funding will be the issue, the WSU officials acknowledged.

“We’re going to have to galvanize the support of many legislators,” Floyd said.

The cost of establishing a new medical school will be part of the feasibility study. Brown said the figure of $150 million is frequently mentioned, but that assumes starting from nothing.

“We have a new ($80 million) building, faculty and campus infrastructure,” she said.

Expanding medical education in Spokane will be a tough request no matter who’s doing the asking, said state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, a Spokane Republican who sits on the Senate higher education committee.

“I think we have a better chance to build the funding with WSU and UW working together,” he said. “The key thing is we want a great medical school with all the extra benefits for our economy. I care more about that than I do who is actually running the thing.”

That sentiment was shared by Dr. Jeff Collins, chief medical officer at Providence Health Care in Spokane.

“For probably 30 years there’ve been a lot of people working in Eastern Washington to try to bring more medical education to this side of the state, and we need it. Having two research universities interested is a wonderful thing,” he said.

Hodgins, of UW, said Idaho also explored the possibility of creating a new medical school in recent years and concluded “adding the classroom sites through the WWAMI program is a heck of a lot cheaper.”

The Seattle school – which last week said it also is launching a statewide study as part of a “Next Generation WWAMI” initiative – wants to continue to partner with WSU, he said.

If that doesn’t work out, UW could look at partnering with another school in Eastern Washington to provide medical education here.

“We’re very committed to Spokane,” he said.

Brown, however, said the time is right to talk about a second med school for Washington.

“We need so many doctors, there are so many students who want to be doctors … I feel like this is a good time.”

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