Having had many conversations about Spokane medical education with college presidents, stakeholders and community members, let me begin by saying that this isn’t a Cougars vs. Huskies debate. While Washington State University and the University of Washington publicly divorced, this issue doesn’t need to divide our community. Now, it is about what’s best for medical students and sick patients: reasonable, wisely-timed policy.
As a business owner and legislator involved in our state’s budgeting process, I believe it is important that our loyalty is to facts that create more reliable policy long term. We have plenty of data on each university’s proposal to offer medical education in Spokane. At this point, we have to solidify the potential UW-Gonzaga University WWAMI (for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) program for the short term while supporting a WSU medical school long term.
Here’s what we know: The UW has been ranked second in the nation for primary care education for the past two decades. In rural and family medicine, UW medicine’s programs have been ranked first for the past 22 years. The 2,400 UW and 4,700 WWAMI faculty members are second in receiving National Institutes of Health funding for landmark discoveries in bioscience. Thirteen faculty members investigate for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Five have received Nobel Prizes.
Some have asked how Spokane benefits from WWAMI with some 20 students studying here while Seattle enjoys the advantage of providing care at Washington’s only Level 1 Trauma Center. In fact, Eastern Washington has profited from WWAMI for years, and a Gonzaga-UW partnership is well-positioned to preserve WWAMI and add value to each school. WWAMI is one of the most innovative medical programs in America, and provides flexible regional options that gear students toward rural health care. Studies demonstrate 65 percent to 70 percent of postgraduate residents choose to remain where they practice their residency. This year alone we saw 50 prospective residents apply for a single medical residency slot in Colville. WWAMI encourages doctors – against their statistical proclivity to specialize in affluent cities among other doctors – to serve families in rural Washington. Lives are routinely saved by having a good physician nearby.
A WSU medical school headquartered in Spokane would bring countless benefits as well. An established medical school returns $1.35 to the community for every $1 spent by creating a talented biotechnology workforce (as we have witnessed in the Riverpoint area), spurring entrepreneurship and attracting additional doctors who are valuable consumers in a thriving economy. WSU’s community-based model is highly conducive to rural health, and internist education neatly dovetails with its existing health sciences presence here in Spokane.
This process is exciting, but it is not without hurdles. Although I’m confident that WSU will qualify for accreditation, it could take as long as four years and tens of millions of dollars in startup costs. We’ll see the first WSU doctor in five to 10 years. It’s a great strategy, but at this point a WSU medical school doesn’t yet justify eliminating a routine state budget reappropriation for WWAMI. Under pressure of tough health care policy, we have a critical shortage of family doctors, as veterans and new patients experiencing wait times for doctor appointments know all too well. A WSU medical school could become the solution in a few years, but WWAMI is the best method we have today to ease the physician shortage and bargain federally for more Eastern Washington residency slots. We have to preserve the foundation of Spokane’s health community in order to begin building.
A Gonzaga-UW Partnership and WSU medical school are both wins for our community. Having met with proponents of each proposal, I can safely say that no one wants a caricatured rivalry dynamic arising from competing legislative budget requests. WWAMI seeks an $8 million reappropriation for the next two years to double its Spokane medical student population to 80, and WSU is asking for $2.5 million next year to continue its accreditation and infrastructure process. In 10 years, that number will grow to a $47 million annual ask. In four weeks, I’ll travel to Olympia with the goal of preserving WWAMI now and supporting WSU in the years ahead. With WWAMI’s funding allocation already assumed in this year’s crammed legislative budget, we’ll champion – but can’t guarantee – WSU’s $2.5 million request. I’ll consistently communicate that, at its heart, this conversation is about doctors and patients. It’s exciting to think Spokane’s horizon could have two medical schools. Both are possible; both are feasible; both would be great assets to Spokane.
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