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UW, WSU spar over medical schooling at Riverpoint

Tensions between the University of Washington and Washington State University over the future of medical education in Spokane became apparent again Wednesday when UW announced an initiative called Next Generation WWAMI.

The three-page news release mentioned WSU just once, and didn’t address at all “some fairly significant questions” about the Spokane school’s control over medical education on its campus, said WSU Spokane Chancellor Lisa Brown – questions she said she and WSU President Elson Floyd raised with UW administrators in a March 12 meeting.

“What we’ve been talking about is what the structure should look like,” she said Wednesday. “Who hires the faculty; how to address the clinical partnerships; the student admission process; the curriculum. There are questions around that model.”

The model she was referring to is WWAMI, pronounced “whammy” and referring to the 40-year-old five-state medical education program offered by the UW School of Medicine at universities in Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

UW medical school Dean Dr. Paul Ramsey said the Next Generation WWAMI plan will study how to enhance the access, quality and affordability of medical education through a task force led by former Washington Gov. Dan Evans. The other elements of the plan are asking the Washington Legislature for money to educate more students in Spokane and a radical retooling of the medical curriculum throughout the WWAMI system.

Brown said WSU has hired a consultant to conduct its own study, a fact she and Floyd shared with Ramsey and UW President Michael Young on March 12. With new buildings on WSU’s Riverpoint campus and the support of the Spokane business community in funding a pilot program to educate second-year medical students here, the time is right to look at new approaches, she said in a statement.

There is a shortage of primary care doctors in the state, but UW’s medical school admitted just 120 of the 800 Washington students who applied there last year, the statement said.

“The need is great and the model has not kept up with the need,” Brown said in an interview. “There are a lot of questions about how it should evolve to best meet the need and also to serve the Spokane community that has invested a lot.”

Ramsey said in response to Brown’s comments, “WWAMI has been about partnership. Partners do need to work all of those things out, that’s what we’ve done and that’s what we continue to do.”

The state’s two largest universities last tangled over medical education in May 2013, when Floyd expressed disappointment that UW recruited only 17 second-year students to study in Spokane, even though 20 spots had been funded. He said WSU might have to “plow (its) own way” and separate from UW.

Young responded that the WSU president’s comment was a reflection of his “not understanding how a medical school is run,” and that only 17 medical students wanted to study in Spokane. That number eventually rose to 19.

The dispute appeared to have been patched up by September when Ramsey and Brown jointly announced plans to permanently expand the number of UW medical school students studying at WSU Spokane.

Brown said the UW announcement Wednesday was a surprise.

Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, sits on the state Senate Higher Education Committee, and he said he had discussions during the past session with UW officials about expansion plans for Spokane after what he called “the tiff” between the two university presidents.

“I’m pleased to see University of Washington is expressing this commitment,” he said Wednesday, although he found it curious there was so little reference to WSU in the announcement. Both schools will have to work hard to get the funding necessary for the expansion in Spokane, he said. UW wants to boost the number of first- and second-year students in Spokane to 80 for each year; currently there are 20 first-years and 19 second-years.

“The priority isn’t who’s controlling what, but what’s produced,” Baumgartner said. “Sometimes, getting them to work together takes constant effort.”

Rep. Larry Haler, of Richland, ranking Republican on the House Higher Education Committee, said he was surprised by UW’s announcement but that he’ll support it if it brings primary care doctors to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in the Tri-Cities, something he’s been pushing the medical school to do.

Ramsey said the Next Generation WWAMI plan will create a “21st-century curriculum” for medical education, to begin in 2015.

Instead of first- through fourth-year medical education, students will embark on a “scientific foundation phase” with greater emphasis on clinical care.

“Some of the best medical schools in the country will be attempting to do this in the next five years,” he said.

Staff writer Jim Camden contributed to this story.


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