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Sen. Murray, pushing funds for residencies, sidesteps Spokane medical school flap


SEATTLE – As she pushed for more graduate-level physician training in the region, Sen. Patty Murray did her best Wednesday to steer clear of the controversy over who should operate a medical school in Spokane.

Murray, who has introduced legislation to extend federal money for primary care residency programs, toured a south Seattle clinic that benefits from such a program. Specialists outnumber primary care and family doctors in America about 2-to-1, she was told, in part because specialists make more money and have an easier time paying off the $250,000 in debt the average medical student has when finishing all training.

Washington could be short as many as 1,700 doctors by 2030, Murray said. The need for primary care physicians is already acute in poor urban neighborhoods like South Park, where she was visiting the Sea Mar Community Health Center, and in rural areas.

Would that shortage be helped better by a second medical school in the state operated by Washington State University, or by having the Spokane-based school continue to be part of the University of Washington’s multistate program, she was asked.

“There’s certainly a discussion about that going on” between the two schools, Murray said. “Everyone’s trying to look at it pragmatically.”

She believes officials from the two universities have “made great progress,” although no decision has been reached.

The presidents of the two universities have clashed over the future of medical education in Spokane. WSU President Elson Floyd said in April the Pullman-based university should establish a new medical school on the Spokane campus, in part to bring more doctors to Spokane and Eastern Washington. UW President Michael Young said in May the Seattle-based university will hire a dean for the Spokane operation as it moves to increase enrollment from the current total of 39 medical students to 160 by 2019.

Byron Joyner, UW Medical School’s vice dean for graduate medical education, said the shortage of primary care doctors in rural areas and some cities is something that can best be helped by more graduate medical programs, or residencies in that specialty, in those areas.

About 30 percent of the doctors who graduate from UW Medical School stay in the five-state region it serves, Joyner said, and many doctors stay in the areas where they do their residency.

Murray’s legislation extends a federal program that trains medical residents at community-based medical centers. The Teaching Health Center program will spend about $1.6 million this year to train medical residents in Spokane, Yakima, Toppenish and Tacoma, but it is due to expire next year.

Despite the disagreement between UW and WSU over control of the Spokane medical school, “my legislation is supported by both,” Murray said.