Last spring, after a spat between the University of Washington and Washington State University over the number of second-year medical students at the Riverpoint campus, Gov. Jay Inslee was asked whether the state would support a four-year medical school in Spokane.
He said the question was “getting a thousand miles ahead of ourselves.”
Well, the pace has quickened. WSU has commissioned a study on whether to establish an independently accredited school in Spokane, with a report due at the end of June.
The University of Washington, which directs medical education for the five-state group called WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) is opposed, stating a “strong preference” to retain WSU Spokane under its umbrella. The tension boiled to the surface recently when UW recently announced an initiative led by former Gov. Dan Evans to change WWAMI without giving WSU a heads-up. When asked about that, Randy Hodgins, UW’s vice president of external affairs, said WSU sprung the medical school study on UW leadership at a March 12 meeting.
Clearly, relations are frosty, which is unfortunate because both institutions are trying to solve an immediate and significant problem. The state – along with the rest of the country – is facing a shortage of primary care physicians. Moving to a primary care model is critical to bringing down health care costs and expanding access in rural areas.
UW’s medical school is a national leader in primary care education. Medical students want a UW diploma, which is what they get even if Spokane is their WWAMI home. That’s fine for the 120 Washington students UW accepts each year, but it does nothing for the hundreds who aren’t. The national average for in-state slots is 440.
Furthermore, WSU says, there are 1,600 residency slots for medical school graduates but only about 100 east of the Cascades. Once in the Seattle area, many new doctors decide to stay. Meanwhile, all Washington counties but King are experiencing a physician shortage. Critical Access Hospitals in rural areas are struggling to maintain sufficient staffing.
WSU sees a confluence of events – new patients from the Affordable Care Act, shortages in primary care doctors and the rapid expansion of the Riverpoint campus – as the right time to pursue the long-desired goal of a medical school. It would be the second public medical school in the five states within WWAMI. By contrast, Missouri has five public medical schools.
A medical school would provide a strong shot in the arm for Spokane’s economy. Strong partnerships between the campus and the local medical community have already been formed. WSU’s leadership believes autonomy will allow it to build a pipeline of future doctors for underserved areas.
However, the feasibility study is crucial, because this won’t be easy. UW provides a first-rate education at bargain prices. And no matter how many medical schools exist, the state Legislature must be persuaded to free up funding for a large increase in slots.
Nonetheless, the prospect is worth exploring. Let’s call a truce while the universities complete their studies.