BOISE – Idaho ranks 49th in the nation for its number of doctors per capita, and many of the state’s current doctors are expected to retire in the next few years.
What’s more, the state, which has no medical school, is lagging on training new ones.
“Knowing that it can take up to 11 years after high school to produce a physician, Idaho really has some challenges ahead as these physicians start retiring,” Dr. Mary Barinaga warned state lawmakers on Tuesday. That includes four years of college, four years of medical school and three to seven years of residency and fellowship.
A new family medical residency training program in Coeur d’Alene is one step to try to help, joining other residency programs around the state. It would train six students next year.
Lawmakers also are debating adding more medical school seats through a cooperative program that sends Idaho medical students to the University of Washington’s medical school, though Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget for next year doesn’t fund more seats.
Dr. Dick McLandress, program director for the new Kootenai Family Medicine Residency in Coeur d’Alene, said the need is particularly acute for primary care doctors, with 50 percent expected to retire within the next five to seven years. “In North Idaho, definitely we’re in the 50 percent zone,” he said. “That really matters to all of our communities.”
Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, a family physician, agreed. “I know a lot of them, and they’re my age and older,” said Schmidt, 59.
Though Idaho has no medical school, it does have several programs that cooperate with schools in other states to train new physicians, including the WWAMI program, which stands for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho, and serves a five-state region. Spokane’s Riverpoint campus is a key part of the WWAMI program.
In 2009, the Idaho Board of Education recommended upping Idaho’s WWAMI seats from 20 to 40 students per year, but it hasn’t gotten there yet.
“Last year, we made some progress,” Barinaga told lawmakers. Five new WWAMI students started last year on a special track for rural and underserved communities; funding is now being requested for the second year of that expansion, at $252,400 in state general funds. Otter recommended that funding but didn’t recommend a second request for $113,400 for five more WWAMI seats to bring the program up to 30 first-year students.
Members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee questioned Barinaga about whether the program’s ready to go for those five additional students, and she said yes – classroom space and other resources are in place, and all that’s needed is the funding.
Schmidt, who serves on the finance committee and is himself a WWAMI graduate, said, “To me, that’s a very wise investment.”