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Sun., July 13, 2014

Guest Opinion: Med program working well

Plenty of opinion has been expressed recently about a Spokane medical school. The WWAMI program administered by the University of Washington is the most successful in the nation, and we should embrace its expansion locally.

My disclaimer is that I am not employed by either UW or Washington State University. I volunteer at WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho), to provide and promote scholarships through a foundation that supports students studying to be family practitioners in rural areas.

Spokane has a fine new medical school campus dedicated to WWAMI medical education by the Legislature. The campus was built to serve 80 students per year for the full four years. In September 2013, WSU and UW presented a medical school expansion plan to Spokane, and pledged to seek funding in Olympia. UW and WSU met many times after this presentation to jointly author a proposal to present in Olympia. In February 2014, WSU announced that it would no longer support the joint, collaborative proposal and that it had hired a consultant three months earlier to determine how to build an independent WSU medical school in Spokane. Obviously, this was a surprise to everyone involved with WWAMI, especially the UW.

In order to justify a new medical school to the public, WSU has mounted a negative campaign against UW/WWAMI. The university’s claims are inaccurate and simply untrue. Here are the facts:

Myth: WWAMI is a Seattle program that doesn’t meet the needs of rural Washington.

Fact: There are about 40 sites in Eastern Washington that provide education or training for students. This far exceeds the number of sites in Western Washington. All WWAMI students must train in a rural setting. WWAMI’s community-based model allows the UW medical school to offer the No. 1 rural medical program in the country at one of the lowest costs to taxpayers.

Myth: UW/WWAMI does not admit enough Washington students.

Fact: No out-of-state students are admitted to Washington state WWAMI slots. The UW, like WSU, wants to admit more. Of an annual cost per student of about $70,000, the student pays about $30,000. The balance is largely funded by UW hospital operations. Any additional students must be funded by Olympia. The UW has done an outstanding job creating medical education from a constrained system. Olympia needs to do more.

Myth: UW/WWAMI hasn’t met the needs of students in Spokane.

Fact: In 2013, the first year of providing the second year of education in Spokane, 17 of the 20 students opted to continue their education in Spokane. This year more than one-half of the Spokane first year class and all of the Pullman class opted for their second year in Seattle instead of Spokane. I asked these students why they chose Seattle instead of Spokane. The general consensus was that WSU – not UW – was not fulfilling their needs. I have written many letters to WSU management reminding them that students need to come first – not politics.

Myth: The current cost structure is too high.

Fact: The national average yearly cost is about $110,000 per student; WWAMI’s is $70,000. With a new school, its own operations, and infrastructure and capital requirements, WSU costs will certainly exceed the national average. I know this from being involved with an independent start-up medical school. It’s not clear if WSU is planning to charge very high tuition, or to ask for support from Olympia on an ongoing basis. UW could accept a massive number of additional students at the lower support levels than would be possible at an independent medical school.

Myth: The UW hasn’t helped expand residencies in Spokane.

Fact: UW has been a leader in expanding graduate medical education positions in the WWAMI region, including Spokane’s family medical and psychiatry residency program. The university has used its own resources to subsidize existing programs. The new residencies through the Spokane Consortium are accredited under Providence Health Care – not WSU – and the funding is temporary. The UW supports continued funding for new residencies and is also working on a permanent solution. Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers are both heavily involved in legislation that would provide more permanent graduate medical education slots and funding for Eastern Washington.

UW/WWAMI has been a longtime partner with Spokane and Eastern Washington. This program is the No. 1 program for family and rural practitioners in the country, and has been for two decades. It is disingenuous of WSU to support their cause by discrediting this program.

John Huckabay is a resident of Coeur d’Alene.

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