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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eye On Boise

Idaho’s 49th in number of doctors, and many will soon retire…

Idaho ranks 49th in the nation for its number of physicians per 100,000 residents, Dr. Mary Barinaga of the Idaho WWAMI program told legislative budget writers this morning. And Idaho’s doctors are aging: 25 percent are over age 60, and 86 percent are over age 40. “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,” Barinaga warned. That includes four years of college, four years of medical school, and three to seven years of residency and fellowship.

Idaho has no medical school. But 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. Students do their first year of courses at the U of I in Moscow and Washington State in Pullman, go to the University of Washington medical school in Seattle for their second year, and train in clinical settings in Seattle or throughout the five-state region for their third and fourth years. In 2009, the State 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 requested for their second year, at $252,400 in state general funds. Gov. Butch 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. JFAC members questioned Barinaga about whether the program’s ready to go for those five additional students; she said yes – classroom space and other resources are in place, and all that’s needed is the funding.

“Residents tend to stay where they train, so we want to make sure we have opportunities around our state for people to do their training,” Barinaga said. That includes medical residency programs, in which prospective doctors train after they finish medical school. Next year, a new family medicine residency program is starting up in Coeur d’Alene to serve six first-year residents. Director Dr. Dick McLandress told JFAC that 50 percent of primary-care doctors are 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.”

Otter recommended $200,000 for the Kootenai Family Medical Residency, which would cover only a small portion of the costs; Kootenai Health, formerly Kootenai Medical Center, as the sponsoring institution, would put in $475,000 a year, and federal funds also would be tapped.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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