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Dr. McCarthy: Medical school partnership benefits underserved people

Today we live in a world where financial and health disparities are profound and accelerating. The impacts are evident when you consider how life expectancies and the communities in which we live correlate with access to and quality of health care.

I am a physician with an underserved focus. I am dedicated to my patients and to training the next generation workforce to provide care for the underserved throughout all of Eastern Washington. My journey to medicine began by studying and learning from mentors at Gonzaga University in Counseling Psychology. There I began to appreciate that not everyone has the advantage of stable mental health and financial resources.

From Gonzaga, I went on to attend medical school at the University of Washington School of Medicine. In 1987, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Joe Brasch, an old-school obstetrician with a heart of gold. In Dr. Brasch, I saw someone who put into practice many of the ideals I had learned at Gonzaga. Despite years of waking at 3 a.m. to deliver babies, I saw a doctor who treated everyone not only expertly, but also with respect and dignity regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds and values. Dr. Brasch was truly a role model, and I found myself, as well as many other medical students, trying to emulate him.

I am also the assistant dean of a medical school with a rural medicine focus. I consider it a privilege to work with medical students; they are not only eager to learn but are also passionate in their desire to work with underserved and disenfranchised populations here in Spokane as well as across the state –from Grand Coulee to Montesano.

The collaboration between the University of Washington School of Medicine and Gonzaga is leveraging synergies between the UW’s 45-year legacy of medical school training in Spokane and reputation as the top-ranked medical school in the country for Family Medicine and Rural Medicine and Gonzaga’s history and tradition as one of the region’s leading Jesuit institutions.

This fall, we welcomed 120 first- and second-year students back on campus who are being taught by many of our region’s top physicians, gaining real-world experience through community-based clerkships and rotations in rural communities throughout the region.

Yet these students are doing more. In addition to learning from an innovative medical school curriculum, they are actively engaged in learning by serving the disenfranchised throughout Washington state. Students are actively helping local communities address issues such as food insecurity, concussion awareness and misuse of opioids. They have helped staff a clinic at the House of Charity, partnered with Spokane Regional Health Department to provide a “walking school bus,” and continually supported students seeking exposure to medicine. They have assisted with mentoring high school students who have not had exposure to the medical field, yet have the talent and potential to become physicians and to return to and serve their communities.

GU and UW share a commitment to educating students who can help make the world a better place. Service learning is shared by both institutions, which I personally experienced some 30 years ago, and embrace in preparing our physician workforce to make a difference in the lives of the underserved.

Data from the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) confirms this notion of commitment to the disenfranchised in a survey from the AAMC that reports 41 percent of UW School of Medicine students plan to work with underserved populations, whereas the national average is significantly less – 26 percent.

Thanks to the foresight of the Washington Legislature and Gov. Dan Evans back in 1971, strong support from our current Washington state legislators, local physicians and Spokane business community; the medical school, through its next generation of physicians, is making an impact in our communities.

As the UW-GU Regional Health Partnership continues to grow and evolve, so will its impact – in Spokane and in many rural communities across the state for years to come.

Dr. John McCarthy is assistant dean of Rural Programs for the University of Washington School of Medicine in Spokane.


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