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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

UW study recommends doubling of medical school students, argues against second institution

The battle over medical education in Spokane took an expected twist Friday.

A new study commissioned by the University of Washington concludes that doubling the size of its physician training program in Spokane represents the most efficient option for boosting the number of doctors and warns that Eastern Washington’s health care system would be unable to support two medical schools.

“This study supports our expansion plans and validates the success of what we have been doing in Spokane since we began medical instruction in the city in 2008,” said UW President Michael K. Young. “We are offering the most cost-effective, most feasible, and most immediate answer to the challenge of producing more physicians for the underserved areas of our state.”

The new study, conducted by research firm Tripp Umbach, contradicts a study done for Washington State University in September that found a new community-based medical school envisioned by WSU would be the least costly way to combat physician shortages, particularly in rural communities.

Citing new figures Friday, the UW study said its average per-student cost for medical education in Spokane is about $70,000 a year, which is below the national average range of $81,000 to $130,000, and less than the estimated $98,000 a year per student cost at a proposed WSU medical school.

“The most cost-effective model is the University of Washington growing its medical school in Spokane on Riverpoint campus,” said researcher Paul Umbach, whose company estimated in 2010 after being hired by Greater Spokane Inc. that expanded medical education would contribute $1.6 billion and about 9,000 jobs to the region’s economy over 20 years.

WSU said it welcomes the UW commitment to expanded physician training in Spokane but stood by its position that the state has produced too few doctors for so long that a second public medical school is needed to meet the demand.

“Many communities are facing a crisis regarding access to health care because we do not have enough doctors,” WSU President Elson Floyd said in prepared remarks. “While we welcome the University of Washington’s announcement … about their intention to address part of this shortfall, it is simply not enough.”

The two universities parted ways earlier this month over the shared five-state physician training program in Spokane known as WWAMI to battle it out in the Legislature over their competing visions of how best to train more physicians for Washington, particularly for underserved rural areas.

The University of Washington wants to double the number of medical students it trains in the Spokane WWAMI program to 80 per class by 2017, and eventually to 120 per class. Backers cite the UW School of Medicine’s global reputation, its top national ranking for primary care training, and its status as the second-leading recipient of federal research grants behind only Harvard University.

“This is one of the best medical schools in the world,” said UW Regent Orin Smith, noting that reputation and training carry over to the Spokane operations.

Washington State University wants to establish a Spokane-based medical school that trains 120 students per class but rely on partnerships with existing hospitals for clinical rotations rather than building a new teaching hospital. It’s asking state lawmakers for just $2.5 million next year to begin developing the medical school.

Ken Roberts, the dean of Washington State University’s College of Health Sciences on Spokane’s Riverpoint campus, acknowledges that UW has one of the nation’s best medical schools and says WSU isn’t trying to replace it, just provide a different approach that’s been shown to be more effective at producing doctors willing to practice in rural communities. The state needs both models, Roberts said.

But officials at WSU question the $70,000 per-student cost cited in the UW study. The WSU study in September concluded the UW’s average per-student cost at $215,000 in its medical school, which UW officials immediately ripped as “seriously flawed.”

“It’s a dramatically low number,” Roberts said Friday of the $70,000 figure, explaining that medical school operations are so complex it’s difficult to arrive at a universally accepted way of calculating per-student averages. “You can work these numbers a lot of ways.”

Although both universities acknowledge that the number of available residency programs needs to be increased, WSU dismissed UW warnings that the health care system is unable to accommodate two medical schools.

“We are expanding residencies now,” Roberts said. “We’re very engaged in expanding residencies.”