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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Guest opinion: Update state’s 1917 public medical school law

Sen. Michael Baumgartner And Rep. Marcus Riccelli

Creating a healthier Washington means we need to change a 1917 law restricting public medical training to only the University of Washington.  This nearly 100-year-old limitation has contributed to a serious shortage of medical professionals throughout the region, particularly in rural areas.  The law was written for a different century and a different population. We are proud to help lead a bipartisan group of legislators from across our state for a new approach.

 Although King County has just 29 percent of the state’s population, it is home to nearly half our state’s doctors.  In rural Washington and in the state’s smaller cities, patients face long waits or must travel long distances, and the problem gets worse when specialty care is involved.  Only four of Washington’s 39 counties rank above the national average for doctors per capita. Eighteen of them are experiencing a severe shortage of doctors – fewer than 10 for every 10,000 residents. 

Washingtonians deserve better.

That’s why we will be introducing legislation and supporting funding next year to authorize the creation of a new medical school in Spokane to be operated by Washington State University.

We appreciate the commitment that WSU has made to the Spokane community and its dedicated efforts to build a world-class health sciences campus here.  WSU has boldly invested in Spokane by using the university’s own bonding authority to help build a $70 million medical school classroom building and by moving its well-established pharmacy program here.

We are fully confident that WSU has the vision and dedication necessary to take the logical next step and provide Spokane with the independent medical school that has been so long overdue.

The first class of 40 students is expected to enroll in 2017, and a WSU medical school will eventually produce 120 doctors each year.  Under its innovative “community-based” model, WSU doesn’t have to build a costly new teaching hospital. Instead, it will offer clinical training programs in hospitals around the state, utilizing existing classroom facilities at branch campuses in Spokane, the Tri-Cities, Vancouver and Everett. The more widely dispersed these programs are, the greater the chance new doctors will settle in counties where the need is greatest.

The positive economic benefit to the state will be equally significant.  Michigan, for instance, has an economy roughly the same size as Washington’s, but its four medical schools have more than four times the economic development impact.  Once our legislation passes, it will allow WSU to bring tens of millions in medical research dollars – in the form of grants and gifts – to our community.

The new school also will mean more access for Washington students who want to become doctors.  Far too often, we hear from constituents here in Spokane who are frustrated that their daughters and sons must leave the state to pursue their careers.

We know that over two-thirds of doctors stay in the state where they received their undergraduate and graduate medical training. Every year, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges, Washington  produces about 3,900 qualified medical school applicants, but the University of Washington has space for just 120 students in each class.  We can’t afford to keep losing 97 percent of our state’s potential doctors.

Some in our community have argued against establishing an independent WSU medical school, and instead call for only the expansion of the University of Washington’s WWAMI medical program here. 

We believe our state needs both.  We welcome the expansion of WWAMI, but it alone is not enough to meet the demand.

Multiple medical schools will provide choice, eventual healthy competition and resulting increased innovation.  Monopoly control in any industry or academic field rarely, if ever, provides maximum public benefit – medical education is no different.

While our state is facing many budget challenges in the upcoming legislative session, we are confident that this is an achievable investment worth supporting. 

We are not alone.  A broad group of both Republican and Democratic fellow lawmakers from across the state also realizes that the need for more doctors in rural areas is acute – and the solution is clear.  Improving the next 100 years of medical care in Washington demands a change to that old 1917 law and the establishment of an independently accredited WSU medical school headquartered in Spokane.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, is a member of the Senate Higher Education Committee. Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, is vice chairman of the House Health Care Committee.